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I was recently on a Zoom call about search engine optimization where we discussed all the new ways we are getting our name onto the search results of our target audience. The SEO expert on the call Googled "what does cadence do?" and pointed out that we do get the first link to cadence.com, but that doesn't really count. We're in such a technologically specific business that sometimes we forget that new comers may not have the background. I frequently deliver an "EDA 101" talk, and even that is somewhat advanced, getting into fabs and all that business.
So what does Cadence do?
An increasing part of almost everything depends on electronics in one form or another. Look around your living room at the TV, WiFi router, cable modem, laptops, and smartphones. Look at your car, especially if it is an electric vehicle, and there are more and more electronics. You don't have a cloud datacenter lying around in your living room, but many of the things you access on your phone rely on the cloud to do the heavy lifting, and datacenters probably have a greater quantity of electronics packed into them than anything else. You are even less likely to have an airliner or a jet fighter in your living room, but, yes, more and more electronics in them too.
All that electronics has to be designed by someone, and usually, those people are just called designers. But those designers don't do things by hand; they use computers to do the design. And that is where Cadence comes in. We don't provide the computers, we provide the software that runs on the computers. This is known as electronic design automation, or usually just EDA. The software is not just one huge lump. It is broken up into specialized pieces usually called tools or design tools. So Cadence's product line is more like all the apps on your smartphone, each used for a specialized purpose but all designed to work smoothly together.
I'm sure you've seen the internals of some electronics, like the above photo. The green board with all the black plastic squares on it is called a printed circuit board. We provide software for designing those too, but the heart of any electronic device today are those black squares. They are known as integrated circuits or sometimes semiconductor chips. Or just chips when it is clear we are not talking about potatoes. Inside the black plastic is the real chip, a square of silicon perhaps the size of your thumbnail. On that chip are tiny elements called transistors. Lots of them. The most complex chips have literally billions of them.
So just like people in finance use spreadsheets, designers use EDA software from Cadence. But it is more like a spreadsheet with a million rows and a million columns. A lot of what Cadence's design tools do is keep track of the massive amounts of data involved in designing something so complex.
It hasn't always been like that. The biggest chips used to have thousands of transistors, and if you go back far enough to the birth of the integrated circuit in the 1950s, just a dozen or two. At one of the earliest semiconductor companies, Fairchild Semiconductor in Mountain View (Silicon Valley), an engineer called Gordon Moore noticed that the number of transistors seemed to be doubling every year or two. From just four datapoints, he wrote a famous article in Electronics Magazine in 1964. Since then, that exponential doubling has been known as Moore's Law, and it has, more or less, continued for over 50 years since. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that the cost of a chip is mostly dependent on its size, not the number of transistors, so over those decades, the cost of electronics has fallen by roughly 50% every couple of years. The graphics in your smartphone is far superior to those found in flight simulators costing tens of millions of dollars forty years ago. You might have heard that the microprocessor was invented to build a calculator, and that is true. But then calculators go so cheap we gave them away at tradeshows as an alternative to pens or coffee mugs.
Cadence (actually, the main company that eventually became Cadence) started in the early 1980s, the tens of thousands of transistors per chip era. People had ideas for chips that they wanted to build, and Cadence's software would allow them to express those ideas in a way that our software could read, and more or less automatically, the software would turn those ideas into the instructions required by the factories that actually manufactured the chips. These are known as fabrication lines or usually just fabs. Sometimes, they are called foundries since, like an iron foundry, you tell them what you want them to make, and they make it.
As chips went from thousands to billions of transistors, for a group of designers to design everything became intractable. If you are designing a kitchen, you don't need to design the dishwasher and the fridge. You can purchase them as a unit. In the same way, parts of chips can be purchased from Cadence. This part of the business is known as IP, which stands for intellectual property (nothing to do with patents). We supply parts of chips that many different design groups can make use of, so we can design them once and sell the same things many times, making the economics work through scale.
Another recent change is that artificial intelligence techniques have become powerful and can further increase the efficiency of individual designers faced with the challenge of billion transistor chips, in a similar way to how advanced driver assist systems can take over some of the more routine aspects of driving. And just as ADAS is moving further towards autonomous driving, AI under the hood of Cadence's tools is allowing designers to focus on their own areas of expertise and leave the routing parts to the tools themselves.
Cadence does other things too. As you might guess, creating software that can handle the design of billion transistor chips requires advanced and challenging techniques. We call this computational software, a combination of computer science and mathematics. It turns out many other domains depend on similar expertise, and over the last few years Cadence, has expanded, partially through our own development and partially through acquisition. Cadence now participates in more than just the design of chips but whole electrical and electromechanical systems, the design of boats and jet engines known as fluid dynamics, and most recently, molecular design of drugs.
So that's what Cadence does. The heart of what we do is provide EDA tools for the design of integrated circuits of staggering complexity. But we do a lot of other things. Moore's Law continues to be relentless, so the chips we need to design today will be twice as large in a couple of years. There's no resting on our laurels in EDA!
Here's an example of a system designed with Cadence's EDA tools:
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