Academic frustration

Posted on 2009-12-17 by Jan Decaluwe
Tagged as: JanHDL

In my previous blog post, I told you that back in 1990 I got pretty excited about my first experiments with Synopsys Design Compiler.

To understand my excitement better, let me explain where I was coming from.

After I graduated in 1985, I had worked for 2.5 years at the brand new IMEC institute in Leuven, Belgium. I was part of a team that did research on behavioral synthesis, in a project called the Cathedral silicon compiler. I remember well how we thought about the state of the field. Logic synthesis was considered a solved problem. The next big thing was “obviously” going to be behavioral synthesis. However, this is a very complex problem. Therefore (so the argument went) you have to choose a particular application domain to make it tractable. In our case, the application domain was DSP.

There were several clever people in the team doing clever things. But I remember that I often got a feeling of dissatisfaction. The choice of an application domain seemed artificial and arbitrary. Moreover, our behavioral synthesis tool needed a lot of manual steering through so-called “pragma’s”. As a result, it often seemed that the tool was not just restricted to an application domain, but to a single example.

Synopsys Design Compiler was a totally different kind of tool. It didn’t need to know about the application domain: you could use it for just about any kind of digital design. Moreover, it came up with a good solution by default: pragma’s and settings were only required to further optimize an already good solution. I felt relieved: this was silicon compilation according to my taste!

I can hear the critique already. What’s the point in comparing a research project on behavioral synthesis to a commercial tool that surely works at a much lower level? Isn’t this comparing apples to oranges? Well, I have a lot more to say about that, but I’ll leave it for future posts. But in some sense the critique is definitely valid. As a result, my main conclusion out of this experience was that I’m probably not suited for an academic career. I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I missed was a direct link to industry and customers.

I guess I always felt more at ease in the bazaar than in the cathedral.

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