Inside An Unsung Industry, Transformative Tech Starts With Computational Software

By Russ Banham


Thanks to 5G network technology, content can stream up to 100 times faster while latency—the time it takes for data to travel across a network—is reduced by an eye-popping 5,000%. How did such extraordinary leaps in capability occur?

The answer might be little-known to most: A behind-the-scenes industry is responsible for the foundation of wired and wireless communications and other cutting-edge technologies, from today’s aerospace marvels to tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles.

“Without computational software, the design of ever-thinner silicon semiconductor chips with tens of billions of layered transistors, the chip’s active components, would not be possible,” said Anirudh Devgan, president of Cadence. “And without that many transistors, we’d all be living in the past, dialing up our friends on a rotary phone.”

Cadence is a global leader in electronic design, with more than 30 years of computational software know-how. The company has applied its expertise over the decades to transform once-outrageous concepts—like streaming movies, self-driving cars and hyperscale data centers storing the world’s digital information—into reality. Yet, this crucial and innovative work is performed under the radar.

It’s time to lift the curtain and reveal this fascinating industry engaged in the use of sophisticated mathematical calculations beyond the grasp of most people. An example is matrix algebra (a branch of algebra that deals with the theory of matrices), which provides a useful way to study and manipulate linear matrices across different dimensions.

Put in the context of a semiconductor chip, these high-end algebraic calculations guide the design of semiconductors with more transistors embedded in a progressively smaller chip. But matrix algebra is just part of the equation. Artificial intelligence (AI) platforms controlled by powerful computers are also needed to create complex algorithms performing more advanced computational calculations.

Semiconductor chips hosting as many as 100 billion transistors each—exponentially more than the number of stones in the Great Pyramid of Egypt—provide this computing clout, which is dependent on computational software. As Devgan put it, “AI is not possible without powerful semiconductors, and powerful semiconductors need computational software.”

Intelligent Electronics Become Even Smarter

This symbiotic relationship is rapidly evolving from semiconductor chip design to full system innovations. Such innovations are expected to revolutionize how the automotive, aerospace, healthcare and other industries operate, Devgan said. “A lot of the work we do today is not for the present time but for many years out.”

In preparing for that future, Cadence partners with semiconductor makers serving the broader electronics industry, which is composed of sectors like hyperscale computing, consumer or industrial electronics, automotive and more. End products include a variety of consumer and commercial digital devices like laptops, mobile phones, drones and video game consoles, to scratch a deep surface.

The makers of these devices are ceaselessly conceiving and constructing tomorrow’s next-generation products, many relying on advanced computational software to design more powerful semiconductors. These products could be just as transformative as 5G streaming speeds and ultra-high-resolution audiovisual quality.

“What I can say is that autonomous driving, as remarkable as it sounds, is just the tip of the iceberg of what is possible, and that’s just one industry sector,” Devgan said. “In our business, we get to know all the next trends—before they trend—because they all depend on computational software.”

These trends, and the blistering pace of technological development setting them in motion, are counteracting the industry’s traditional boom-bust economic cycle—helping to attract more of the world’s best electrical engineers to a career in computational software.

“If you started your career in computational software a generation ago, you worried about the career impact of cyclical turndowns,” Devgan explained. “Today I’m happily surprised this is no longer the case. The opportunities are amazing, evidenced by the fact that 5G, hyperscale data centers, AI and autonomous vehicles are all happening simultaneously.”

Harnessing The Three P’s

Devgan’s optimism for the future is based on what he described as the “science of the three P’s”—representing place, pace and patterns. Place refers to the use of geometry, a 2,000-year-old field of mathematics; pace involves the combination of geometry with 400-year-old Newtonian calculus (used in designing early semiconductors); and pattern refers to today’s use of deep learning algorithms to recognize and analyze unique patterns. “These three sciences, in combination, can take us forward another hundred years, technologically speaking,” he said.

Assisting this forward momentum at Cadence are continuous investments in research and development and especially people. “To collaborate with our customers and their partners to create electronics products at exacting deadlines, you need to have the top-tier PhD- and master’s-level engineers,” said Devgan, who has both master’s and doctoral degrees in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon.

Devgan suggested that while investments in high-performing talent in most industry sectors generate about five times greater productivity, Cadence’s talent investments have produced a 100x productivity gain. The company provides training to new hires to optimize their use of computational software.

But what fetches them through the company’s doors is their interest in developing some of the world’s most important technologies, like 5G connectivity and self-driving vehicles. “That’s what drew me here—the opportunity to play a role in driving innovation and business success,” Devgan said.

With today’s technological triumphs giving way to even more promising developments ahead, providers of computational software may finally receive their well-deserved share of the limelight.

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and bestselling author.

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