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DesignCon Steps it Up

Eye Candy for the Digital Designer

DesignCon is one of the few industry events that manage to be simultaneously broad and focused.  The conference overview proudly proclaims, “DesignCon attracts engineering professionals from various levels and disciplines and represents many aspects of electronic design.”  For a small-ish event, this would seem like a recipe for disaster.  With topic categories ranging from signal integrity in multi-gigabit serial interconnect to power-aware design, test fixturing, and “business and engineering impacts,” you’d expect a program that leaps around from topic to topic like a kid with ADD manning the cable remote.

From all this, you’d think that DesignCon might be a bust, but it isn’t.  Perhaps it’s something in the particular demographic that shows up here year after year.  Maybe it’s because DesignCon isn’t anybody’s “flagship” event.  For the companies that present and exhibit here, it’s always one of the “other” conferences and trade shows in which they participate.   It certainly isn’t because of the ambiance presented by Santa Clara’s full-featured but somehow indescribably not-quite-right convention center.  We attend a huge number of technology conferences and events held here each year, and the convention center seems to hang around each of them like a bad suit. 

The “con” in this conference is a nod to connecting things, and these days a lot of things are connected by multi-gigabit serial interfaces.  The proliferation of high-speed serial into almost every connectivity standard has caused something of an analog renaissance in the historically digitally-biased IC design community.  Bit-bigoted engineers who once vowed that the undergrad EE479 class was their last-ever flirtation with the R’s, L’s, and  C’s of outrageous fortune find themselves frustrated by squinting at eye diagrams, trying to figure out whether “pre-emphasis” and “equalization” apply to both big-endian and little-endian implementations, whether jitter still is a problem with caffeine-free connectors, and why they bothered reducing the power consumption of the digital core of their chip by 50% when 93% of the total power is flowing through transceivers anyway.

Looking at the demographics of DesignCon attendees, we find almost half listed as “semiconductor,” so what we have here is primarily a bunch of hard-core chip designers learning how to make their masterpieces talk to each other.  Oh – and learning how to put them on boards… and how to test them… and…OK, some people here are more interested in board-based design too.  Did we mention that this conference can tend toward broad?

Still, somehow, DesignCon manages to be engaging and informative for its attendees.  The trade show part is a nice addition to the technical program, not the other way ‘round as it has become with many conferences (we did NOT mention DAC here), and we somehow find ourselves enjoying a program with diversity like: “Impact of PCB Laminate Dimensions on Supressing Modal Resonance,” “Is Congress Killing Innovation,” and “ESL Driven Instrumentation Interfaces.”  Even this seemingly impossible range makes sense when you’re here.

The paper breadth at DesignCon seems more biased toward industry than academia, and the sessions are correspondingly better attended.  Perhaps the lack of other distractions and a modest sized “see-it-in-a-couple-of-hours” trade show floor prop the sessions up to a more desirable status, and the brief-ish sessions compressed into a comprehensible schedule make the whole thing feel more approachable to attendees.  In sharp contrast with the experience of attending a sprawling mega-event like the Consumer Electronics Show, one has the feeling that it’s actually possible to take in at least the essence of DesignCon during the allotted time. 

If you’re looking for cool new gear to outfit your lab, this event is one of the best places to be.  The collection of expensive devices still controlled primarily with knobs instead of keyboards is pleasantly staggering for a long-suffering engineering geek, and the sight of so many probes that are connected with something other than a bus connector makes the heart sing.  Backplanes bolted onto demo tables drive eye diagrams on brilliant displays across the show floor.  People running demos at DesignCon look like they might actually know what they’re doing – a refreshing change from those shows where paid actors spiel skillfully through scripted scenarios, stepping gingerly on stones waiting just below the surface of the Disney-esque demonstration pond.

Taking this to the extreme, along the side of Altium’s ostentatious space (they’re making a major announcement at DesignCon), company founder and CEO Nick Martin slips confidently into a random demo station — “Let me see what’s running here… (closes a couple of windows within the design tool, opens up a design and begins probing nets) …you can see how our ‘OpenBus’ system allows you to connect your blocks without getting into the details of the particular bus standard…”  Wait, when was the last time we saw the CEO of a huge high-tech company giving demos personally on a trade show floor?  Oh, right.  Never!  I love DesignCon.

The reason all this seemingly disconnected mayhem comes together in a coherent package lies in the technology itself.  Moore’s Law has made us outgrow things as they were, and, despite living in an age of increased specialization, we have all been forced to cross-pollinate.  Massive gate counts have forced us into higher levels of design abstraction, and that profoundly affects our test and verification methodology.  Higher frequencies, bigger gate counts, and greater leakage current have brought power to the forefront, and it permeates every aspect of our design activities.  Bandwidth increases have forced our I/O out of the parallel domain and into the analog-esque range of multi-gigabit serial transceivers, and then the sudden availability of more pins and bandwidth greed has pushed us to parallelize our serial connections, putting us right back in the bus business again, only with gigantic signal integrity issues at insane frequencies. 

The more we try to specialize and retreat into our design comfort zones, the more the technology forces us to dip into the neighbor’s pond, learn new things, and take on new engineering challenges.  And that’s where an event like DesignCon truly shows its value.  

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