The 49th annual Design Automation Conference (DAC) was held last week, at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco. In the first return to this venue since 2009, many Electronic Design Automation (EDA) industry veterans were heard to reminisce about the days when DAC filled both the North and South Halls, and even the hallways tunneling between buildings buzzed with activity. This year, as the industry and DAC has continued to shrink and the largest EDA companies focus more and more on their own closed user events, even the South Hall was too large for the oddly arranged exhibit space.
A first-time DAC exhibitor remarked on how the scene differed greatly from most other trade shows, which feature their name brands right up front in order to grab visitors as they come through the door. Instead, Synopsys, Mentor and Cadence were out of sight along the back wall. Depending on which door a visitor entered, they might first find ARM's Connected Community Pavilion, a coffee vendor, or one of dozens of tiny exhibitors that are usually relegated to the dark, distant corners at other trade shows.
At what its organizers call the "Biggest Event in Electronic Design", Electronic Design Automation Consortium (EDAC) board member PDF Solutions did not even exhibit. Conference attendees remained essentially flat compared to the last San Francisco DAC, at 1,962 in 2009 versus 1,902 this year. Exhibit-only attendees dropped by nearly 20%, from 3,337 three years ago to 2,703 in 2012. It is interesting to note that Booth Staff actually increased slightly, from 2,697 to 2,704. EDA insiders still go to DAC, especially when it is in San Francisco.
An analysis of the DAC exhibitor list reflects many of the changes that have occurred in the industry. Fewer than 100 companies on the show floor, approximately half of the exhibitors, actually develop design tools (the green highlighted spaces in the floor map above). Semiconductor foundries TSMC, Samsung, and Globalfoundries occupied three of the largest booths. Besides ARM, many smaller IP developers were present, along with design and cloud services, compute server and FPGA prototyping hardware suppliers. All in all, it made for a hodgepodge layout, albeit a not too large one to navigate.
However, at the same time that much has obviously changed, EDA companies and DAC organizers appear to want to hold on to ghosts of the past. Examples include the "Troublemakers Panel", hosted by self-described industry gadfly John Cooley. In the past, this panel was an opportunity for hard questions to be presented to the major EDA CEOs. This year, of the largest EDA companies, only Mentor participated. Another ghost of DACs past is the "Denali Party", named for a company that ceased to exist as an independent entity two years ago, when it was acquired by Cadence. This year, the party was downsized and "Sponsored by Cadence", while other past co-sponsoring companies withdrew.
With all the changes in the semiconductor design ecosystem, DAC will be challenged to match this year's numbers when they celebrate their 50th anniversary in Austin next year. Industry leaders should ask whether they wish to simply fade into their "golden years", holding on to ghosts of the past at their premiere showcase, or would rather inject some much-needed energy to "bring sexy back" to EDA?
DAC organizers made some initial attempts to liven up the proceedings, by signing up a few of the San Francisco 49er Gold Rush cheerleaders to wake up attendees before an 8:30 AM keynote address, on the second day of the conference. The cheerleaders, who regularly appear before crowds (including many families) of 70,000 fans at every 49er home game, also are known for their charitable work, and for their careers and education beyond the football field. Nevertheless, according to sources who would only speak off the record, when a female EDA blogger launched a personal protest of the cheerleaders, contacting EDAC Board members and DAC organizers, they cancelled the appearance. Attempts to get a statement from the DAC Executive Committee have gone without a response. Gold Rush management has also declined to comment.
At DAC in San Francisco, organizers made some effort to draw attention to new blood, first-time exhibitors, holding a "Start-Up Breakfast" for the press and analysts. Given the degree to which the established EDA companies rely on the startups for new product development, innovation and growth, it would be fitting to make DAC more of a Emerging Company showcase. It is obvious that the big EDA companies don't need the show to draw the spotlight to themselves. Few new product announcements came from the likes of Cadence, Mentor and Synopsys.
Rather than have startups mostly holed away in tiny little booths, or randomly strewn in between non-EDA exhibitors, the 50th DAC should have them up front and center, to celebrate the one source of vitality that remains in this mature industry. Austin is known as a lively, fun city. It is the Texas Capital, and a big college town. If organizers don't make the 50th DAC a fun one, it might just be the last.