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One of the very first articles that I published that was not pure marketing collateral was written in 1994 when I was a product manager at Microsoft for Windows NT. In one of our first steps into the technical market, I was asked to write a "face-off" article for Computer Design magazine. In this format, the magazine asked two industry experts to take opposite positions on a topic. In this contrived format, the magazine's hope was to get a fiery point-counterpoint argument that helped readers assess the fine points of the two positions. I can't say I remember who took the other side other than I think it was product manager from either Sun or Hewlett-Packard who was extremely offended that Windows NT could even be considered as a possibility for electronic design applications...

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UNIX vs. Windows NT

Matthew Ragen
Computer Design Magazine
August, 1994



With the acceleration of product cycles, a major concern of electronics design engineers is improving their productivity in order to get product to market more quickly.  At the same time, the difficulty and complexity of product designs is growing exponentially.  Historically, EDA (electronic design automation) vendors have risen to this challenge by refining the design tools and process.  The pace of change has resulted in simulation tools, modeling languages, and design practices that change every few years.

In the selection of these tools, EDA engineers make a number of decisions.  Many believe that the purchase decision should be based solely on the design tools that they need.  Others believe the choice of an operating system on which to base development of engineering designs is an important part of the decision since the operating system provides the foundation for the design tools and productivity needs of today’s users.


High-Performance, High Capacity Environments

Electronics designers need high-performance, high-capacity systems to handle key applications.  Initially, electronics design was done on large mainframe systems.  Over the last 10 years, the design platform has shifted towards workstation-class systems.  This change has been driven by a combination of highly interactive electronics design tools that became available on individual hardware platforms coupled with more affordable prices.  This has resulted in greater productivity from both engineering departments and individuals.

The EDA design environment is facing the same paradigm shift again.  There is a significant price differential between workstations and personal computers even though the performance gap has narrowed to near insignificance. With the introduction of new personal computers based on powerful CPUs (Pentium, MIPS, Alpha, or other RISC CPUs) coupled with an advanced operating system such as Windows NT, the same paradigm shift is starting again.

ASIC engineers need standard applications.  Already, virtually every major EDA vendor has released products for Windows NT or has those products in some phase of development.  The cross-platform support that Windows NT offers with a single programming interface for any processor makes the operating system more attractive for new application development.  Moreover, development tools exist that make it easy to port code from UNIX to Windows NT.


Reducing Time-To-Market With Improved Workflow

Improving the integration of engineers into the overall corporation helps reduce the time required to bring a new product to market.  This is a natural evolution that is similar to the way that many other business functions have changed.  For example, standalone word-processing stations shifted towards personal productivity tools and workgroup resources that facilitate communication between many groups.

In the EDA environment, the average ASIC engineer spends much of his time performing non-engineering tasks such as developing schedules, communicating with team members and management, writing memos and specifications, and holding design reviews.  Today, this engineer often needs two machines on his desktop:  a PC for his non-EDA applications and a UNIX workstation for EDA applications.  The most commonly used business applications are not available for UNIX.  Even if they were, the UNIX OS does not provide the infrastructure to support the integration of EDA tools with business applications.  Putting aside the added cost of buying and maintaining two different machines,  the engineer has to deal with a completely different environment for business and EDA applications. 

Windows NT is designed to provide the ability to integrate data between applications.  For example, an engineer may want to simply embed a draft of his design into a specfication document.  Windows NT merely treats this data as an object and, using the OLE (object linking and embedding) technology, the engineer can simply place that object in his document. These features are designed to improve an engineer’s productivity and, consequently, reduce time-to-market.


WABI:  Complete Windows Support?

Some technologies, like Sun’s WABI, attempt to allow common Windows personal productivity applications operate on UNIX.  But these technologies still do not allow the high level of integration that is needed to obtain maximum productivity.  For example, they do not support technologies like OLE mentioned above.  Moreover, these technologies do not support the newer, high performance 32-bit programming interfaces offered with Windows NT and Windows “Chicago”.


Integration And Connectivity

EDA engineering projects are now often coordinated across several locations.  Networking and communications between users is an integral part of completing projects on time. Windows NT includes a complete range of networking services that can be used within a distributed environment.  Beyond basic networking protocols and peer networking capabilities, Windows NT even includes native support for the RPC (Remote Procedure Call) mechanism that is at the heart of the Open Software Foundation’s DCE (Distributed Computing Environment) initiative.

Engineers often must be able to communicate with users on other types of hardware who might be using other operating systems -- in particular UNIX.  For UNIX connectivity, there are a range of other connectivity products available for Windows NT in addition to the basic TCP/IP protocol included with the operating system.  These products include NFS and X-server products, that can be easily integrated into the open networking architecture offered by Windows NT.

In terms of workgroup services, Windows NT includes a complete electronic mail system that offers engineers a convenient way to communicate with each other.  During design reviews, engineers can easily distribute simulation files and design databases by simply sending the files through the mail system.  A scheduling utility completes the built-in workgroup services provided with Windows NT.


User Interfaces

Productivity is also affected by how easy an EDA application is to learn and use.  The provision of common tools and training across multiple sites and multiple engineers is often critical to a project’s success. And, of course, there are also subcontractors who may or may not be on the same software revision as the rest of the ASIC design team.  Windows NT and UNIX have taken very different approaches towards maintaining consistent user interfaces. 

Windows NT offers a single consistent user interface across every hardware implementation.  In terms of training, the Windows NT interface is identical to the user interface that over 50 million Windows users are already familiar with.  With consistent styles, EDA applications can easily have the exact same look and feel as personal productivity applications designed for Windows NT.  In short, the Windows NT user interfaces are well defined and standard at both the tool level and the operating system level, across applications and platforms.

On the other hand, the Motif user interface is the most commonly used graphical interface for UNIX.  Unfortunately, most UNIX vendors have customized their Motif implementation.  The end result is that one EDA application using Motif does not necessarily look and feel like the next Motif EDA application.  Users must re-learn tools and deal with constant frustration of having to invoke the same type of commands differently from one application to another.  There is another level of uncertainty with these user interfaces. Sun’s recent acquisition of UNIX source code rights from Novell, in addition to Sun’s ongoing investments in alternative user interfaces, has left the entire UNIX community unclear on the future of UNIX user interfaces.


Automating The Design Process

Integrating design tools is an important contributor to improving quality and making ASIC engineers more productive.  To EDA vendors, the cost of integrating UNIX-based EDA applications is extremely high.  Proprietary frameworks and communication managers have to be developed and maintained.  This increases the overall cost of ASIC design tools.

Windows NT can reduce these costs by improving integration of tools OLE technology.  OLE helps EDA vendors evolve their applications by moving their design methodology from a tool-centric approach towards a design-centric approach.  Using OLE,  ASIC designers can create compound documents with embedded objects and do ‘visual editing’, drag and drop objects between design databases, and control all OLE objects using automation capabilities.  OLE objects retain properties that can recall the application that supplies the data.  In an ASIC design environment, from the Windows NT shell, the designer can drag and drop design objects onto application objects in order to launch the applications.  Further, the designer can control one application from another and have access to internal commands and data structures of an application. 

The UNIX world is not as advanced.  In the UNIX world designers can perform ‘clipboard’ operations to paste data from one application into another.  However, the application into which you are placing a clipboard object knows nothing about the application the data is coming from.  UNIX does not provide this level of power to an ASIC designer.



Windows NT has solved this problem by providing an identical user and programming environment across all platforms -- whether they use different CPUs or whether they support multiple CPUs.  EDA vendors can easily support new environments with Windows NT; applications just need to be recompiled with no modifications.


COSE - A Single UNIX?

One of the more significant issues with UNIX operating systems is that no two implementations are alike.  This results in users being less productive when they switch environments and it forces EDA vendors to maintain different product versions when supporting different UNIX implementations.  The UNIX environment is responding to this cross-platform capability with an effort the vendors have called COSE.  This is the most recent in a string of attempts intended to provide a common environment for users and applications.  It may be the answer for a standard UNIX.  On the other hand, COSE still permits UNIX vendors to implement additional programming interfaces.  As a result, it is likely that EDA vendors will continue to optimize their products for different operating systems using these enhanced interfaces -- which then means that they still have different code to maintain just like today.


A Windows Family

Two versions of Windows exist.  There is a ‘mainstream’ version which is represented by Windows “Chicago”.  This version, intended for computers such as sub-notebook and most desktop machines, is primarily designed to deliver responsive performance for a broad range of applications while still conserving the amount of system resources required.  There is a “high-end” version which is represented by Windows NT Workstation.  This version, intended for higher end computers such as single or dual processor workstations using Intel or RISC processors, must be able to fully exploit the capabilities of the hardware and provide the most advanced services for the most demanding applications like EDA design tools.

The key between these two versions of Windows is that they support the same programming interfaces so that applications can be easily developed that run on both systems.  This makes it easy for EDA vendors to support a low-end user while still being able to take advantage of the power available on high-end systems.


Concurrent Design

Windows NT provides the core elements for users needing to implement projects requiring concurrent design.  The range of facilities built into Windows NT such networking, management tools, backup support and others provide the foundation for other vendors to implement their specific tools.  The majority of concurrent design tools will be provided by the EDA vendors themselves to manage the overall life-cycle of their products.


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