November 20, 2006
ESL 2.0 = EDA 4.0
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Peggy Aycinena - Contributing Editor

by Peggy Aycinena - Contributing Editor
Posted anew every four weeks or so, the EDA WEEKLY delivers to its readers information concerning the latest happenings in the EDA industry, covering vendors, products, finances and new developments. Frequently, feature articles on selected public or private EDA companies are presented. Brought to you by If we miss a story or subject that you feel deserves to be included, or you just want to suggest a future topic, please contact us! Questions? Feedback? Click here. Thank you!

Jeff Jussel - ESL is a big niche and the reason you'll get 20 different answers from 20 different people about how to define ESL is because people are necessarily application specific. People are starting at the system level to apply technology to a specific area. It's like the blind men touching the elephant. Each one defines the elephant differently. Some people are working on virtual processing, or it's models that improve the reusability of IP models, or power analysis at the system level, or the more traditional orientation towards ASIC design. These are all ESL tools, but they're all very different, and they all address different problems.

ESL is something that deals with algorithmic or functional level of design, as opposed to the implementation level. By the time you get down to anything dealing with an ASIC, you're dealing with RTL. Even if it's between the control path and the datapath implementation, if you've already made the decision between the control and the data, at that point it's an ASIC-level design tool, rather than an ESL tool.

Hamid Agah - ESL is the design flow that enables you to raise the level of abstraction from the existing RTL level to further up the flow. For example, that could be Matlab, or ANSI C, or System C, or one of the proprietary languages from companies like Celoxica. Anything higher than RTL is an ESL flow.

Guri Stark - It leads into the RTL flow for implementation and verification. In simple terms, ESL is everything above RTL, and it includes three things: algorithms, architectural design and exploration, and embedded software. These are the things traditionally addressed by the ESL tools in the market, although the focus on been on the first two. We recently acquired Virtio [spring 2006] because we want to link to the embedded software market. However, I like to use the term system-level solution, which includes the tool element, the IP element, and the services that enable the creation of models and solutions at the system level.

Frank Ghenassi - ESL is now turning from a nice theoretical principle into some practical, mandatory design flows that all companies are adopting. So this is definitely not the last time you'll be writing this article. I speak for STMicro, when I say for us, ESL is what you do above RTL, using higher-level models than RTL. At ST, we user high-level model for several things including functional verification, architectural analysis, and virtual prototyping. And we are using SystemC.

Emil Girczyc - ESL is the design of a system, which is really three components - large software, a large reuse component, and some design. The design is typically done with behavioral synthesis with tools like those from Forte, Mentor, or Celoxica, or it's done by hand by writing RTL. The biggest difference I've always believed, however, is that ESL is primarily about software and design.

Brett Cline - I think the way ESL is understood is two separate things - it's different things to different people. One set of people says it's the next abstraction level above RTL. I truly think customers think that's ESL, but they're creating RTL for hardware. For the second group, it's a flow that encompasses their system-level challenges and encompasses software, firmware development, FPGAs, and systems that lead to hardware implementation.

One of the main advantages of ESL is that you can take the model, which runs really fast and doesn't take long to write, and suddenly it's available to other people in the system. Hardware designers can work with different blocks. Software guys, or whomever, have access to different blocks and can use it with the hardware. A lot of ESL is just fancy verification - a way to reduce people's verification effort.

A.K. Kalekos - Initially, people identified ESL design as a level of modeling above RTL, because traditionally we went from resistors, to gates, to blocks, and each one was a level of abstraction above the last. Therefore, ESL design was seen as SystemC above Verilog, a level above RTL. But this is defining ESL in context of the old paradigm. ESL is creating a new reality, which is essential for the types of products that people need build today. ESL is a disruptive tech that looks like EDA, but is not EDA.

ESL design itself is the ability to capture product architecture and product descriptions efficiently, so you can explore a product definition and improve it. Then, having captured it, you have a path to hardware implementation and a path to software implementation. That means creating virtual hardware platforms delivered to the software developer who can develop applications without waiting for the physical [implementation]. ESL includes behavioral synthesis, using virtual hardware platforms that you've created for system level verification as you proceed, architectural capture and exploration, and virtual platforms for software development.

Q - How long has the industry been debating ESL? 3 years? 5 years? Longer?

Shawn McCloud - High-level synthesis has been around for a number of years. It's a hard problem to solve, and we're a long way from achieving quality hardware. But today at Mentor, we're in the third generation of our products, and for certain application segments like wireless and image processing, they're being used effectively and more rapidly than HDLs. There's actually proof and validation from customers.

Are they using HDLs as well? Certainly they are! Design abstractions do not go away. Previous generations build to the next. Schematic capture built on RTL, and ESL will build on RTL. So the design abstractions do not go away, they build on one another. Therefore, there is additional growth and job opportunity in the ESL space.

Brett Cline - The question is, how long has the industry been calling it ESL, versus how long they have been debating it. It has only been called ESL in the last 4 years, and it has morphed into this thing that includes SystemC and ANSI C. When Gary Smith first defined ESL, it was a behavioral compiler above RTL, but not necessarily more than that.

All told, I think the discussion has been underway for 10 years, and the last 5 to 6 years we've been working on the label.


To be continued …


Peggy Aycinena is Editor of EDA Confidentialand a Contributing Editor to EDA Weekly.

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-- Peggy Aycinena, Contributing Editor.

Review Article
  • October 09, 2008
    Reviewed by 'Annonymous'
    The article is a bit of a mixed bag of things. It contains some extremely thought provoking comments and some fairly down beat views. What seems very surprising to me is the absence of any discussion of UML. UML expresses concurrency very well and has (at least some level of) acceptance in the software engineering world. Where are the UML + SystemC/SystemVerilog tools? Why isn't anyone talking about UML?

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  • October 09, 2008
    Reviewed by 'old grumpy EDA guy'
    Can't get to subsequent pages because of the Cadence transition page.
    Please lose the Cadence advertising. Let me see the whole article.
    Call me when it's fixed.
    Ken Simone
    (937) 684-2734

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  • October 09, 2008
    Reviewed by 'JOSEPH BOREL'
    This aricle is very interesting showing the difficulty of a common definition and or understanding of the word ESL because of the various interests or knowledge of the different people behind the statements.
    In my view we need to define ESL as a global target, without technical references today because most of them will be 80 wrong versus the final implementation and the sum of the remaining 20 will be the practical way to go.
    For me, ESL is the path from "SW Application platforms" to RTL specs with architectural contraints on implementation versus application (speed, power consumption, manufacturability and dependability)
    Jo Borel

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