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The FOSS EDA ecosystem and pcb-rnd in it

ecosys_prop by Tibor 'Igor2' Palinkas on 2017-02-12

Tags: insight, ecosystem, compatibility, tools, export, import, convert, bridge

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Abstract: A proposal on how an EDA ecosystem of independent, smallish tools could be built today.

  The EDA ecosystem is booted up and is called coralEDA.

current scene of EDA tools

There are some large, proprietary EDA tools out there. Most of them are monolithic and many of them actively seek legal and technical measures against free flow of data - as part of the lock-in model, vendors often prefer users to exclusively use their tool once they started to use it with a design. It seems most users are happy with this setup.

Sometimes large open source software projects are also built in a monolithic approach. It sometimes makes it easier for the users of the above proprietary software to switch to a free tool if the free tool has a similar monolithic design. However, for smaller, specialized tools, it might be as hard to join the flow of such a monolithic free tool, as in the flow of a proprietary tool. Not because of technical measures, but because of how users regard and use the software. 1

An UNIX approach would be to provide a set of tools each doing a small part of the job, being able to communicate to each other, and let the user find the workflows (and combinations) that fit their needs. We already have such tools available: the gEDA project is a collection of them, but other projects like QUCS, PetEd, TinyCAD, nicely fit too. But how could a random selection of unrelated tools, developed independently by different people compete with an integrated solution? My proposal is: by converting them into an ecosystem .

An EDA ecosystem

The key is to connect all the little tools in meaningful ways. In an ideal world, there would be one universal format (like line based plain text in UNIX) that all programs could operate on. Unfortunately we are not living in an ideal world. Still, we could get pairs or even small groups of tools to temporarily work together by writing converters and import/export modules. Let's just build random bridges between random tools, without worrying about how general a given bridge is as long as it fully functions between 2 specific tools!

The next thing we'd need to do is to present a large number of examples and tutorials explaining how these flows can be used. This would make it easier for users to explore the ecosystem and even find new, unexpected ways to use it. (This obviously won't be appealing for some users who really just prefer an integrated solution with out-of-the-box icons - but we should just target the rest of the users with the ecosystem approach.)

Then we should stop worrying about packing and distributing the tools. Let that be done by professionals, e.g. package maintainers of Linux distributions. When we write pcb-rnd, we should worry about how we import schematics from TinyCAD, we should write the import plugin, we should present tutorials and documentations explaining this flow, but we shouldn't worry too much about how the user gets TinyCAD in the first place.

We should also give up some of our idealism. As Peter Clifton said in his 2016 FOSDEM talk, this approach would end up in n*n converters for n tools. But I'd rather have n*n (or probably only n*n/k) converters today than one perfect interchange tool that covers it all, earliest shipped in 2094. (There are more thoughts on what we should not try to achieve and where we should focus .)

I believe the hardest part of this is accepting alternatives . Different projects choose different approaches, different design, different programming language, different data models. This is not a bad thing, this is a good thing. This is what gives us alternatives. Unfortunately this means code duplication, effort duplication, waste of human resources. But it's still much much cheaper than the loss we'd induce by forcing everyone to work on and use the One True Solution! That said, I don't suggest we should just always duplicate everything. I only say that we should accept the different goals and constraints of different project and accept that a specific piece of code or data can not always be reused as-is in another project, even despite of best intention of all parties.

Once we get past our fears of code duplication, and we build the bridges, we potentially get a large collection of independent, but interoperating utilities. This sort of joins and pools developer resources too. At the end, the sum of all developers, users, experience, knowledge, data and code behind such an ecosystem, even with the overhead of duplications subtracted, can overweight of those behind centralized monolithic projects. This is how the ecosystem could compete with monoliths - not on the level of individual tools, but on the level of the whole ecosystem.

There are well known examples of this setup. To list only two:

What we'd need to do for this today

Much less than it first seems.

First we need to code the bridges. Do you maintain one of the tools? Find what other tools can be input to you and code importers on your side. Find what other tools can use your output and code exporters on your side. Really, it's that easy. You may want to contact the other tool's team, you may request and perhaps get assistance, or you can even build a bridge that takes some coding on both sides. But it is not required: most of the time, the simplest import or export module written on one side can solve the problem.

Or write an independent converter. Can be a simple foo2bar for a single flow, distributed as a standalone mini-tool. If it's useful, it will become the part of the ecosystem.

If you did any of this, you are done with half of the job. We need good PR or else no one will know about this new bridge. Write a tutorial and/or a blog post. Show how this specific bridge can be used in a flow to produce something useful, even if it is just a blinking LED board.

Let distributions pick up the tools. Let blogs reference your tutorials. Let 3rd party users collect a bunch of tutorials they found useful and republish them as a super-tutorial. When someone asks how to do something exotic on some public forum, and you know 2..3 tools that can be combined to do it, just tell them the solution. Don't mind if they'll be a one-time user of the toolchain, for this single shell pipeline to solve this one problem.

What we are not REQUIRED to do

In this section I list what we are not required to do, which doesn't mean we don't want to do these, or we can't do these or we shouldn't do these. It only means we could just do the cheap part today and worry about these tomorrow instead of getting blocked wondering how to solve the complex part.

Centralization: it's not required to have a central organization or effort to coordinate such an ecosystem in any way. It may be useful to have such coordination in smaller clusters of the ecosystem, tho, but I don't think we should worry too much about this at all. If the tools and tutorials are available, and people found them useful, there would be multiple independent organizations doing the coordination in parallel - just how a number of different Linux distributions package the same software, making sure all pieces work together. Both packaging and getting the packages work together are totally distribution-specific.

A central library of footprints/symbols/resources: this does not have to be part of the base concept; rather it should be a result, an implementation of the concept. Multiple services, implementations, provided by different projects, shall exist in parallel; for example edakrill is one of them .

Standardization: e.g. standard, common file formats. Yes, life would be much easier if we had these already, but we can proceed without them. Let's waste some time on code dups today so we still have users by next week when we can come up with the common file format multiple tools accept. (In case you do believe having a common interchange format, we already have one designed specifically for these ecosystem idea: please read more about tEDAx! )

Packaging: we don't have to invent our own packaging and distribution on the ecosystem-level. We don't need to worry how all the tools will land at the user. As long as each tool is easy to download and install, let the user do it, or let 3rd parties (like Linux distributions) do the packaging. We could also pack up random collections, but it may cause more trouble when it starts to interfere with local installations or distro installation.

 

 

 

 

Footnotes:

1: Some gEDA/PCB users are excited about the new features in pcb-rnd. They'd switch. When I ask what keeps them back, I often get this answer: "I'll finish my current design in gEDA/PCB but I will try pcb-rnd with my next design". Even if pcb-rnd is 100% compatible with gEDA/PCB for reading .pcb files. I call it the invisible lock-in : we do not have any technical measure that would keep users from switching between PCB and pcb-rnd forth and back but they act as if there was. Maybe they just got used to this lock-in idea too much with other CADs.