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What is Hardware Software Co-design and How Can it Benefit You or Your Business?

There is an adage that I am sure most of you have heard of, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Upon further examination, there are examples of this truth all around us. For example, a PC. There are various hardware components in use in its design and assembly. However, no matter how expensive the components or impressive their specifications, this is nothing more than an overpriced paperweight without software.

There are numerous examples of this ideology in play in almost every recess of our business and professional lives. So, obviously, this is not a new concept, but the seamless integration of these two sectors of technology was not always this flawless.

Even when I was in college, the two technologies were taught in different classes, and there were seldom mentions of the other unless it was absolutely necessary. This type of division also carried over into the professional world as well. Although the appeal of knowing both sides of this proverbial coin was ideal, the job description usually type-fitted you into one category or the other. However, the tides are changing. With the onset of smart cars, smart TVs, smartphones, and smart homes, the need for hardware-software co-design is more significant than ever before.

What is Hardware Software Co-design?

Hardware-software co-design was a concept that began in the 1990s. Its core concept was the concurrent designs of hardware and software components of complex electronic systems. It aimed to incorporate the two technologies and exploit the synergy between the two. In essence, it was a way to merge hardware and software in an attempt to optimize and satisfy design constraints such as cost, performance, and power of the final product.

At its inception, the best of both worlds' approach ultimately failed. Mainly because the idea and concept were sound, but the timing was not. At least in terms of the technology that it would require for the full benefit of this innovative concept to reach its maximum potential.

In any industry, forward-thinking is the only way to ensure advancement and longevity. Forward-thinking is precisely what hardware-software co-design represents. The proof of this is the fact that after nearly two decades, this concept is finally receiving the attention it deserves.

Why is Hardware Software Co-design the Way of the Future?

In the field of electronics, we see continuous advancements and changes in technology. These changes are not merely driven by innovation, but by demand as well. The continual integration of technology into every device in our personal and professional lives deems the need for smarter electronics. We expect more functionality from our devices as we put more and more demands on them.

Circuit board with densely packed components

With circuits getting smaller and more densely packed, co-design is going to be imperative with system designs and IoT architectures. 


With this increased demand comes increased dependency. Who among us can actually go for one hour without our smartphone, tablet, PC, or laptop? The quick answer is, none of us. For some, our whole lives are on some of these devices or stored on a server.

All of the points mentioned above brings us to an inevitable truth, hardware-software co-design is the future. I stated earlier that hardware-software co-design was not a new concept and the fact that it ultimately failed the first time. However, if you carefully examine the electronics landscape of today, you will realize that it is the only way we will continue to evolve our technology.

The Integration of Hardware-Software Co-design

There are two divisions of technology today that epitomizes what hardware-software co-design can achieve. They are Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML). These two technologies are changing the way we look at technology and our possible future.

At this time, our world is growing in complexity, and there is an emphasis on architectural improvements that cannot be achieved without hardware-software co-design. There is also an increasing need for our devices to be scalable to stay on par with both advancements and demand.

Today’s designers (PCB) are finding that software is a critical component, and its integration affords their designs increased functionality and performance. Furthermore, the software also provides a level of flexibility, which is crucial in the design process. This is made possible by the use of algorithms that are in a nearly constant state of flux.

How Hardware-Software Co-design is in Use Today

Hardware-software co-design has many benefits that will pay dividends now and in the future. For the PCB industry, it will increase manufacturing efficiency, the innovation of designs, lower cost, and shorten the time of prototypes to market. In terms of the use of machine learning, it also reduces input variation analysis by removing those variables that are already calculated to fail. This will shorten the development time of designs and improve those designs with the same amount of accuracy but at a lower cost.

Depending on your design parameters, you can reduce the simulation times and still maintain the accuracy of your designs. The by-product of hardware-software co-designs optimizes designs, simulations, and overall analysis. You are thereby reducing total production time to just hours or days instead of weeks. These concepts are already in practice in our automated production systems, power grid, the automotive industry, and aviation, to name a few.

Every engineer knows that in the field of PCB design, simulation is king. The reason for this is due to the high-cost that delays and failed designs bring about. The truth of the matter is, every PCB designer or manufacturer desires optimal design decision making.

The Benefits of Hardware-Software Co-design

Hardware-software co-design, with the assistance of machine learning, can help to optimize hardware and software in everything from IP to complex systems, based upon a knowledge base of what works best for which conditions.

This approach assures a certain level of results, regardless of how many possibilities are involved. This same approach can also help if there are abnormalities that do not fit into a particular pattern because machine learning systems can ignore those irregularities.

As a whole, this shift in thinking can bring about a level of innovation not yet seen in the PCB industry. This, in turn, will also facilitate a new level of performance and functionality without the added cost and time constraints previously experienced. Overall, design efficiency will be the new norm as the PCB industry continues to implement hardware-software co-design.

A microchip on a printed circuit board

Micro-chips and ICs are here to stay, technology will naturally progress with them. 


An Example of a Real-World Use of Hardware-Software Co-design

In the field of aviation, electronics (PCB) dominate the field in terms of functionality. The Aviation industry is continuously moving towards innovation and automation. So much so, that pilots cannot effectively fly without the use of some type of electronic system and nor can the actual planes.

With the recent incidents of aircraft crashes, there is an increasing need for better testing and diagnosis of faults before they become a problem. Which leads to the need for better designs and design decision making. As you may know, the best way to perfect any design is through simulation. It saves time, lowers cost, increases safety, and improves the overall design.

In this pursuit of better testing comes the need for better, more efficient ways to conduct these tests. That is where hardware-software co-design comes into play. It enables embedded software (chip) to add functionality to simulations in use to discover design results during simulative flight tests.

How Hardware-Software Co-design is Changing Simulations

During a recent flight test simulation, there was a need for different power outputs of the generators in use within the test. In essence, each power output represents a different testable scenario. Previously, before the use of hardware-software co-design, a separate analysis was run for each power output requirement.

However, now, with the embedded smart chip, the chip adjusts the power output to the specified levels to simulate each scenario. Thus, saving time, increasing efficiency, and improving the design as well.

These types of improvements are being experienced throughout the various electronic industries. Also, because PCBs are the backbone of the electronics industry, hardware-software co-design benefits the PCB industry most of all.

Timing is still everything. The concept of hardware-software co-design is proof of that. Although it failed at first, it is now poised to bring about unprecedented levels of performance, functionality, and design accuracy.

Co-design has never been easier than with using Cadence’s suite of design and analysis tools. Any PCB design concerns you may have will be resolvable through the industry standard of OrCAD PCB Designer. As a layout solution, it can unquestionably facilitate a hardware-software co-design for all of your PCB designs. 

If you’re looking to learn more about how Cadence has the solution for you, talk to us and our team of experts