Chip designs are the foundation of the electronics industry. Microprocessors, microcontrollers, integrated circuits (ICs), application-specific ICs, and memory functions operate from this foundation.
Today’s ICs are a complex interconnection of millions and billions of transistors. Along with a basic understanding of electronic devices and circuits, those interested in or looking for a career in circuit design must also be acquainted with an Electronic Design Automation (EDA) tool for VLSI.
Analog and digital circuits are the two main types of electronic circuits with different design streams. Both start with similar concepts but quickly change in progression. Analog Mixed Signal is another option that merges analog and digital, offering an advanced design concept for VLSI engineers from either stream.
Chip design uses its a programming language, Hardware Description Language (HDL). Verilog, VHDL, and SystemVerilog are the most popular HDL languages. Those familiar with computer programming languages — like C/C++, Matlab/Simulink, Embedded C, or Python — will likely learn HDL with ease.
However, those new to programming can learn HDL from scratch by selecting any of the available options. Additionally, C++ or Python is necessary to understand for scripting. The EDA tools are necessary to design, test, and verify circuits. There is open-source and licensed software for VLSI design. Students or beginners can begin with the open-source tools.
In this article, we’ll explore some of the top EDA tools for VLSI design. Some of these tools are open-source and free to download. Others are the go-to industry standards for VLSI engineering.
Alliance/ Coriolis (open-source) – a complete toolchain for VLSI design, offering all of the CAD tools and libraries in the set for free use, falling under the GNU General Public License (GPL). This is except Hurricane, which is under LGPL and Si2 LEF/DEF parser drivers that are under Apache License, Version 2.0.
The toolchain includes a VHDL compiler, simulator, logic synthesis tool, automatic place and route tools, and a portable CMOS library. The binary packages for installing Alliance are available for Ubuntu LTS, Mac OS X, Fedora, RedHat Enterprise Linux 6 (RHEL6), and RHEL clones like CentOS6 and Scientific Linux 6. For other operating systems, the package can be rebuilt from the source.
The latest toolset includes upgraded alternatives, such as Yosys for logic synthesis and GHDL for simulation. The tools in Alliance are digital only, analog only, or mixed. As an open-source tool and complete toolchain for VLSI designing, it is excellent for beginners. The binaries, source code, cell libraries, and documentation for Alliance are available free of cost.
Synopsys – a top provider of EDA services, Synopsis provides VLSI tools for logic synthesis, simulators (VHDL, Verilog, and SystemVerilog), automatic place and route tools, behavioral synthesis, static timing analysis, transistor-level circuit simulation, and format verification. These tools run on UNIX-like operating systems and require a license. They can be purchased from synopsys.com and activated online for one or several workstations.
Synopsys also offers tools for design, verification, Silicon engineering, and Silicon lifecycle management.
Cadence – a provider of EDA tools and semiconductor IP with several options for design, synthesis, simulation, layout, DRC verification, LVS verification, and parasitic capacitance verification. Some of the top tools used for VLSI design, simulation, and layout includes ICMS, Composer, Analog Artist, cdsSPICE, Spectre, Virtuoso, and DFII. These are all licensed tools available for purchase from Cadence.
Xilinx – the EDA tools from Xilinx use their own chips. Xilinx Vivado Design Suite is the current EDA toolchain for high-level synthesis, simulation, and layout. The Vivado Design Suite includes Vivado High-Level Synthesis, Vivado Simulator, Vivado IP Integrator, and Vivado TCL Store. These licensed tools support design for Xilinx’s 7-Series FPGA products. Xilinx ISE was discontinued in 2013 and is no longer supported.
Siemens EDA – formerly Mentor Graphics, Siemens EDA provides several tools for IC design, simulation, and verification. The top tools for VLSI engineering include Catapult for high-level synthesis, Precision for FPGA synthesis, Oasys-RTL for logic synthesis, Calibre Design Solutions for verification and DFM optimization, Aprisa for digital IC implementation, Custom IC for custom IC design (like photonics and MEMS), PowerPro for low power optimization, Tessent Silicon Lifecycle Solutions for testing and silicon lifecycle management, and mPower for power integrity analysis. These are all licensed tools.
Silvaco – a top provider of EDA, technology CAD, and Semiconductor IP. Silvaco’s TCAD software solutions is a complete tool suite, which includes Victory Atomistic for Nanostructure Simulation, Victory Device for Device Simulation, Victory Process for Process Simulation, Victory Mesh for Meshing & Solid Modeling, Hipex for Full-chip Rule-based RC Parasitic Extraction, Victory RCx Pro for RC Extractor for Realistic 3D Structures, VWF (Virtual Wafer Fab), and interactive tools for pre and post-processing.
Silvaco also offers a complete schematic-driven analog, mixed-signal, RF circuit design, layout, and analysis environment.
Electric (open-source) – a Java-based EDA tool for VLSI design and layout using VHDL and Verilog. It’s available as a GNU project and can be used for synthesis and analysis, including logic synthesis, routing, layout and schematics, simulation, and design rule-checking. Unfortunately, the software is no longer actively supported, but bug fixes are available. Electric is worth trying for those interested in a different design approach than the typical VLSI tools.
Glade – a free alternative to Cadence, Glade is an IC layout and schematic editor. It offers a built-in DRC, extraction, and LVS, allowing for the design and verification of schematics and layouts in a single IDE. Glade can be extended using Python scripting and SWIG wrapping of C++ functions. Along withLinux, Mac OS X, and other UNIX-like systems, it can also be downloaded for Windows. The software’s user interface and operation are similar to Cadence.
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