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The FOSS EDA ecosystem: common interchange file format
ecosys_edacore by Tibor 'Igor2' Palinkas on 2017-02-13
Tags: insight, ecosystem, compatibility, tools, export, import, convert, bridge, file, format, file format
Abstract: EDA ecosystem proposal: interchange file format.
The EDA ecosystem is booted up and is called coralEDA.
History and background: there is a lot happening in pcb-rnd these days. As of early 2017, a set of these seem to nicely connect up and form something that's a big portion of the edacore idea, just implemented in a different way. We did not have a grand edacore-like plan behind these, they mostly started to happen independently. But they really happen to connect that way. In the same time edacore seems to be in hibernation. When I realized this, I contacted the edacore people to find out if they are interested in a reboot. But we decided to walk separate ways.
This is not an edacore reboot, just happens to have similar goals. This effort is called "EDA ecosystem" .
This article focuses on how the ecosystem idea differs from edacore and other similar ideas floating around these days.
Acceptance and mutual respect
Before we start, we must accept that we have alternative implementations, different projects going in different directions. Although this means code and effort duplication, this is not a bad thing, this is a good thing . Most of us don't want to live in a world where there's only one EDA software available, even if every development effort is concentrated there. (If you think you do, then rethink it with substituting your favorite package with one you really dislike and imagine that's the only one available.)
Respecting the choices of another project seems to be simple in theory, but it is important to see a few examples of what we need to accept in practice. Else we make decisions that are unacceptable for one project or another too easily. An incomplete list of examples of what differs in another EDA project:
- It has different goals. Aspects that are extremely important core concepts here are something to be avoided there.
- Different data model. Different way the tool models the world. Even, different subset of the world is modelled by the tool.
- Obviously, different code. This doesn't seem to be a big issue until a common effort accidentally starts to depend on it, e.g. because of the lib API.
- Different programming languages. Again shouldn't be a big deal, until you try to provide common code. As edacore spotted too, a plain C lib seems to be a common minimum for most of the world, but even there it might be something alien and can easily become a "why couldn't we just reimplement in OOP/python/ruby/java" question.
- Different design choices, even beyond the programming language. For example pcb-rnd walks the minilib way while gEDA/PCB goes for glib. This has many consequences: pcb-rnd is more portable, less dependent on GNU, compiles faster. In return we need to ship the minilibs with it and if someone joins the project they need to learn the APIs. Both choices are valid in their domain. If we want do anything common, we must make it neutral to such choices, else it's automatically locked out from some projects.
- It should not interfere with any existing program, code, project
- It should not try to push excess amount of new concepts and ways onto existing projects; there obviously will be some new concepts, as we are trying to introduce a new shared feature, but it should be actively kept minimal.
- Thus we have to live with the idea of code/effort duplication. E.g. we implement a common library of footprints - it may be a good idea to also implement a way to index them and store the result in some complex data format. But what if the other program already has a complex data format for this? What if our hash table is an incompatible idea with their lists? It's better to step back and rethink: do we really have to do the indexing in order to achieve our goals? If the answer is not "absolutely yes!", we just need to skip it. Less is more.
- This obviously includes dependencies. If our shared solution depends on qt, programs using gtk will hate it. If it depends on glib, programs using minilibs will hate it. If all documentation and comments are written in Italian, everyone but Italian projects will hate it. Just reduce such external dependencies, even if this means less features. Go for a common minimum instead of "would remove some code duplications and costs only an extra dependency".
- Free/open source means open from ground up , no exceptions. An open source hardware is not really free if the schematics comes in a format that's readable only by a proprietary CAD package. A library or a file format is not free if it is specified by a standard that can't be included in the same repository for whatever legal reasons. Yes, this excludes a lot of ISO and STEP and IPC stuff, and results in effort duplication while we design our own formats. But there's no point in making a compromise on this and building on non-free things then see some projects refusing to depend on it because of the legal implications.
What we could do within these limits?
These problems are not new. There are good examples on how people have solved these in the past - some examples implemented decades ago and are still widely used in one form or another! The most trivial of these are network protocols: SMTP, ftp, HTTP, TCP/IP, the IRC protocol, etc. What's common in them:
- They specify a protocol and not the actual implementation.
- They are freely accessible as RFCs - no registration, no shopping carts, no much restrictions; if I wanted to copy the RFC next to my implementation as part of the documentation and distribute the pack, I am free to do so.
- They try to concentrate on one thing, specify all relevant details and leave everything up to the user.
This is a pretty important difference compared to the original edacore idea (of the 2015 FOSDEM talk: "we should try to write a lib and give that to the common"). Instead, in the ecosystem idea, we should:
- Define free, open file formats and mechanisms;
- Design for the common minimum, not for the fancy extras and completeness. This format is for interchange, and we want to reach every project, not just the big, complex ones. If the format requires you to implement splines, we lock out a bunch of small players with no curve support. Don't expect interchange formats to be lossless. Don't expect interchange formats would replace per project native formats.
- Preferably design even the file formats and mechanisms in a modular way, expecting some projects would want to implement only parts of it; make it work as good as possible in such partial implementations!
- As an optional extra we may provide a reference implementation (code) lib, or even libs. Some projects would use these, embed these, others would read the source and yet others would totally ignore them. It's all fine as long as the lib is not the common but is just an appendix.
- Provide optional , but out-of-the-box tools. Small, simple, but useful ones. If we specify a footprint format, provide tools that parses it, makes checks on it ("lint"), tools that visualize the footprint (e.g. generate a png). This can be anything from a web service to command line tools. Best if there are even multiple interfaces and APIs. This helps projects to adopt the file formats as they can try it in advance and they see they have debug tools readily available, still these tools won't interfere with their projects.
What we don't need to do?
We could also do any of these, but to get the project started and be useful, we are not required to do them. It's an important consideration: we don't have much resources, we should spend it where it's spent the best. I believe we don't need to do the below in order to get the ecosystem idea work:
- Common code lib implementations; it's a nice extra, but it's the file format specs that would make it work
- Some centralized repository, web service, etc. for sharing user content: once a few tools already have support for the ecosystem, this will automatically happen. Someone, or hopefully even multiple people will make their public services. Or people will just use github, torrent or whatever techniques. Of course we can also run our own repository service but that should not be tied together with the ecosystem idea, it should just be one user of the formast (that happens to be maintained by the same people who made up the specs).
- "Fancy features". Provide the bare minimum. It's a tradeoff between the "works everywhere" vs. "looks perfect in all little details". If the user wants the former, an interchange format is for that; for the latter, use a native format.
What we could expect from such a project?
Assume we designed a set of interchange formats and maybe mechanisms and we optionally provided some libs and tools.
- If we can get at least 2 projects using the new format for exchanging data, we are at the same point as with the original n*n converter EDA ecosystem idea. We just wasted some more time on a yet-another-format.
- But if 3 or more projects are using it, we may saved some effort already!
- If that happens, users can build and share libraries more easily.
- Users will find new ways to combine our tools in the ecosystem - even unusual ways developers didn't think of, e.g. using schematics cap from one project and PCB editor from another, even if both projects were "integrated".
What we should NOT expect from such a project?
- A common interchange format replacing local native formats.
- A common interchange format capturing all tiny details that a native format can.
- Proprietary EDA tools cooperating on this on the export-side - they don't want their users to be able to get the design out of their program, especially not if it's clearly for importing in another.
- Everyone's support - even with the most careful design and the lowest barriers there will be project that won't like it and won't join. Some projects will hate it exactly because it's not restrictive enough, e.g. that it doesn't mandate OOP or SQL or other specific complexities.
We are trying to show good example with pcb-rnd , which is compatible with a wide variety of open source and proprietary EDA systems and file formats.
I've designed a minimalistic interchange format called tEDAx .
We are also running edakrill , an EDA and format agnostic data sharing service.