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A View from the Top: A System-Level Blog
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    A View From The Top is a Blog dedicated to System-Level Design and Embedded Software.
  • About the Author

    Tom De Schutter
    Tom De Schutter is responsible for driving the virtual prototyping business at Synopsys. He joined Synopsys through the acquisition of CoWare where he was the product marketing manager for transaction-level models. Tom has over 10 years of experience in system-level design through different marketing and engineering roles. Before joining the marketing team he led the transaction-level modeling team at CoWare.

    Achim Nohl
    Achim Nohl is a solution architect at Synopsys, responsible for virtual prototypes in the context of software development and verification. Achim holds a diploma degree in Electrical Engineering from the Institute for Integrated Signal Processing Systems at the Aachen University of Technology, Germany. Before joining Synopsys, Achim has been working in various engineering and marketing roles for LISATek and CoWare. Achim also writes the blog Virtual Prototyping Tales on Embedded.com.

Better Software. Faster!

Posted by Tom De Schutter on March 26th, 2014

As virtual prototyping has seen a wide adoption over the last couple of years, it felt like the right time to work with industry leaders across multiple applications and publish a book that captures the best practices in virtual prototyping. As editor of the book: Better Software. Faster!, I had the privilege to work with some incredibly knowledgeable people who have been deploying virtual prototypes for many years. The book captures the main benefits of virtual prototyping as the key methodology to shift left the design cycle: namely reduce the overall time-to-market by starting software development before hardware availability. Better Software. Faster! features case studies and best practices from companies across mobile, consumer, automotive and industrial applications including: Altera, Bosch, Fujitsu, General Motors, Hitachi, Lauterbach, Linaro, Microsoft, Ricoh, Renesas, Siemens, Texas Instruments and VDC Research. As editor I can of course not do anything less than recommend you read the book, but really … do read the book ;-) .

Maybe the most compelling reason of all to get the book is that it is available for free as an eBook at www.synopsys.com/vpbook. If you prefer a printed version, since there is still something nice about holding a book in your hands and going through the pages, you can order one on Amazon.com, Synopsys Press, or you can visit me at EE Live! 2014 at the Synopsys booth (#1924) in the San Jose McEnery Convention Center on Tuesday April 1st where we will hand out the first 100 copies of the book!

To give you a sense of what the book is about, below is a high level overview of the chapters and their content. I am convinced that this shift left methodology can help your company deliver better software, faster and as a result impact the entire product development cycle and increase product quality. Most of all, I hope you enjoy the read!

Chapter 1: We start by reviewing software development complexity resulting from the race towards “smarter” products, including the multicore challenge, the tight balance between power and performance requirements and the growing concern about security.

Chapter 2: We introduce virtual prototyping as the engine behind “shift left” and explain the main benefits of this methodology to help software developers cope with tight software schedules and complex software bring up, test and debug challenges. Case studies by TI, Siemens and Altera.

Chapter 3: We illustrate the advantages of using a combined solution, consisting of a virtual prototype and debug and analysis tools for software bring up tasks like boot sequence development, operating system porting and driver development. Case studies by Fujitsu, TI and Altera.

Chapter 4: We describe how the automotive industry is becoming more software centric and dealing with functional safety questions. Virtual prototypes are helping by providing key capabilities to enable extensive software testing. Case studies by Bosch, Hitachi and General Motors.

Chapter 5: We examine how virtual prototypes enable faster software development across the entire electronic supply chain. Case studies by AlteraLinaro and Renesas.

Chapter 6: For specific software bring up and validation use cases and for software driven verification it can be useful to combine virtual prototypes with hardware-based prototyping and verification solutions like FPGA-based prototypes and emulators. Case study by Ricoh.

Chapter 7: Semiconductor Engineering Editor in Chief Ed Sperling provides his view on the electronics industry and discusses the case for virtual prototyping with industry experts from Microsoft, Lauterbach and Synopsys.

 

 

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Clearing Your Software Roadblocks

Posted by Tom De Schutter on February 25th, 2014

Last week I was traveling across North America visiting customers. Besides being amazed at how cold it is in the rest of North America (I live in Silicon Valley where the sun has barely left us during the entire winter), it was good to talk to a wide variety of companies and discuss their software development needs. We encountered three types of companies considering the use of virtual prototyping to pull in their software development schedule:

Type 1: Companies that have used virtual prototypes in the past or other groups inside the company have used virtual prototypes and are preparing for their next design to deploy a virtual prototype to start their software development effort before hardware availability. At these companies virtual prototypes have become the norm to meet the SoC delivery schedule.

Type 2: Companies looking for a point solution to pull in one specific aspect of their software development effort. The overall software stack might not be too complex to require a virtual prototype to start early and benefit from the extra control and visibility, but for certain tasks, typically device driver development, OS porting or boot code bring up, virtual prototypes provide an instant ROI. Especially with pre-constructed virtual prototype packages that contain a reference design using their target architecture e.g. ARMv7 or ARMv8, and interface IP e.g. DesignWare USB 3.0 or DesignWare Ethernet, the software team is up and running quickly and can develop the specific software much faster than with any alternative software development solution.

Type 3: Companies where things are starting to break. When I bring up my slide highlighting the value of shifting left, namely pulling in the software development task alongside the hardware development, there is an aha moment. These companies recognize themselves in the “before virtual prototyping” setup: full serial development where all focus first goes to the hardware bring-up and only once the hardware is ready, the software team comes into play for that specific design. While for many products this might be ok, but for a lot of other applications there comes a point at which this methodology causes issues: e.g. late time-to-market, poor alignment of hardware and software or poor software quality due to increased software complexity and tight development schedules. This is where companies can benefit significantly by adopting virtual prototypes. But like with many things, the saying “no pain – no gain”, is very true in this situation. As one of the key engineers stated during my recent visit, “even if we had a virtual prototype today, there wouldn’t be anyone available to use it as all software developers are still working on the previous design.” So how do you turn serial hardware/software development into parallel hardware/software development? In a lot of cases it requires a top down mandate. Only through tight coordination and planning and moving resources to fit the new methodology will virtual prototyping truly provide its full benefits. You can only achieve a game changer experience if you are willing to … change the game.

As I encountered a lot of snow during my trip across North America, it is also interesting to see the perception of snow as a problem or not. In Texas snow is so uncommon that there just isn’t material available to deal with it. While in Minnesota snow is just a fact of life during the winter. See the impressive picture below of a series of snow plows clearing the snow in Minnesota’s Twin Cities.

So where for some the software content is not big or complex enough to need a lot of attention, others require a targeted solution for a targeted problem (comparing a single snow plow to an out-of-the-box virtual prototype for device driver development). And for many others the software complexity has just become a part of their product delivery and scheduling and through tight coordination and the right tools, they learned how to deal with the complexity. If 6 snow plows can clear a highway, a well-orchestrated virtual prototyping methodology can remove any software roadblock.

 

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New Year’s Resolution

Posted by Tom De Schutter on January 28th, 2014

Let me first start off with wishing everyone a great New Year! I wish everyone good health and a lot of friendship and love. And hopefully all those software driven devices around you will make your life better. At least that is the goal and the promise from the industry. I for one am a big believer in the benefits of a “connected” future. The Internet of Things really has the potential to improve our lives. That of course doesn’t mean that anything goes; we should be vigilant about privacy versus intrusion. On the other hand, the values are really too good to set aside.

While I am enjoying this abnormal winter, let’s just call it a summer, in California, I do realize the consequences of not getting any rain and hence the necessity of water for now and for the “real” summer. And while connected devices won’t be able to “fix” the weather, they might be able to help us use the limited water we have in the most optimal way. What if a sensor in the soil could “tell” us how much water is exactly necessary to e.g., grow a plant or maintain a piece of grass, rather than sprinkling an unknown amount of water at specific time intervals during the day? Some of this already exists, but is simply not used widespread.

Similarly, connected devices can help monitor the health of people and send a warning in case of an issue. It can allow elderly people to live longer independently with active monitoring capabilities offering peace of mind. I am, for example, always worried that some people who live far away from me might fall badly and become hurt to the point where they can’t reach the phone to call for help. With an active monitoring system, the device can start the call and/or warn someone to check out the person’s home and see if everything is alright.

As with a lot of new technology around us, it is the combination of hardware: sensors, modems, processors … and software that enables these new capabilities. A well designed solution can offer targeted capabilities at the right power consumption level. And with all these devices connected to the internet and software driving the “decision” algorithms and actions, it will be easier than ever to update the software based on new requirements or to fix known issues. Hardware-software co-design has never been more important to drive the future and make it a better place. Through virtual prototyping I am committed to contribute my piece of the solution.                                                                                   Sounds like a good New Year’s resolution to me …

 

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When I Grow Up, I Want To Be A Software Programmer

Posted by Tom De Schutter on December 19th, 2013

To keep up with the continuous introduction of new gadgets and capabilities in our smartphones, cars, houses and stores, it is clear that we need more software programmers. That is why multiple companies are coming up with new and innovative ways to introduce people — especially children — to programming. To lure them, the makers of these programming products try to mask the programming aspect as much as possible under a layer of “fun;” whether it is having children design their own video game by mapping a maze and placing down obstacles, create a story through the drag and drop of graphic tiles in order to animate an object or build genuine robots with Legos and program them to interact with their environment.

The most frustrating part of programming, regardless of the form factor, continues to be finding and debugging an issue. First of all, figuring out if there is a potential issue is quite a task because it implies that you foresee all possible use cases and test if these function correctly. Even for the most well-known software companies this continues to be a stretch since we tend to use devices and software in a way that is unforeseen, or at least not properly tested by the software developers. Good testing is definitely an important skill to learn. I realized that this is less straightforward than you think when I reviewed a simple computer game that a seven year old had created, in which a droid has to maneuver through a maze guarded by another droid. When going through the different levels, I reached a level where there was no path from start to finish. Apparently there were a couple of extra walls that the seven year old didn’t notice before calling the game done.

Secondly, debugging an issue is easier said than done and the more items there are interacting, the harder it gets. So if you want your Lego Mindstorms to do something specific and it doesn’t work out the way you want, it might be hard to figure out what is going wrong. Are the sensors working properly? Is everything connected correctly? Did you write the software for the right environmental conditions? Or is there just a “plain” bug in the code? Having the right set of tools to review everything that is going on in the hardware and the software can be a big help to get to the bottom of the issue.

Lego Mindstorms robot on a mission to find the bug. 

Lego Mindstorms robot on a mission to find the bug.

 

The concepts of determinism, visibility and control also significantly help to reduce the debug effort of complex software running on heterogeneous multicore designs. It might not have the same layer of fun compared to what our children are doing to get introduced to programming, but as was evident from an email this week from one of our customers, it is still quite satisfactory to see the Linux Penguin logo pop up after a successful boot sequence on a virtual prototype representing a device in development.

 

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Where Dragons Roam

Posted by Tom De Schutter on November 26th, 2013

For more than half a year now, I am living with two dragons at home. Luckily from the outside they look just like regular children, so we didn’t have to upgrade our house. But we have to remind our little dragons to switch to human languages when they talk to us.

It is interesting, and also a bit sad, to realize that as we “grow up”, we lose the ability to let our imagination go wild and really live and play in an alternate world (outside of video games). And it is not that children just live in their own private imaginary world, they actually build up a world that their friends experience as well. My daughter has two dragon relatives at school: a dragon sister and a dragon cousin and when they meet at school they greet each other as “hey cuz” and “hey sis”.

Now I don’t want to claim that virtual prototypes will let you relive your childhood, although there might be a good idea there, they do help you to create a “reality” that is not yet available, which can be shared with many people. They also help to make that “new reality” come to life more quickly. Whether it is for porting OSes, developing drivers and firmware for new mobile application subsystems, developing software for the next generation of multi-purpose printers or debugging software that will run on the dozens of MCUs in today’s cars, virtual prototypes are helping software developers to create the ideal infrastructure to develop, test and debug software without having a dependency on hardware availability. While virtual prototypes probably won’t make you feel like a dragon or any other cool mythical creature, they might make you feel like you gained powers that you didn’t have before.

A key advantage of virtual prototypes is that they are software models representing the target hardware. And as such, they don’t suffer from some of the compromises related to physical hardware. When debugging on a virtual prototype, you don’t have to worry about accidently breaking something by trying out corner cases or inserting faults. This gives you full control, aha, finally some of those feelings of invincibility that you had in your youth are coming back, to test the software.

As software becomes even more pervasive in our daily live, testing every corner case and trying out security risks, faulty data packages or just plain unexpected user input, has become more important than ever. So please use virtual prototypes to completely test all software corner cases and security threads, because in “real” life we all want our children to be as safe as they are in their own dragon world.

 

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Halloween Is Going Mobile

Posted by Tom De Schutter on October 23rd, 2013

With the end of October around the corner, my children are frantically thinking about what they want to dress up as for Halloween. It is interesting to see how both of them chose a costume that has something to do with a mobile video game: my daughter will be dressing up as a red angry bird while my son wants to go as a wizard, where he is using clash of clans as the example of what a wizard should look like.

The impact of mobile devices is quite profound and goes deeper than we really imagine. From picking a restaurant based on Yelp ratings, comparing online prices of a product while you are in a store, navigating to your next meeting appointment, to … picking a costume for Halloween. The mobile revolution has really taken the world by storm. Although we are hard pressed to remember a time when we didn’t run around with a smartphone, in actuality these devices only surfaced a couple of years ago and even then it was really an early adopter device. Smartphones are the prime example of the power of well synchronized hardware and software. ARM, one of the key IP companies driving the mobile revolution, has fully realized the importance of software and software enablement. In 2010 they co-founded Linaro, and in Linaro’s own words, it is the place where engineers from the world’s leading technology companies define the future of Linux on ARM. And ARM is making sure that there are transaction-level models available for all their processors and the system IP relevant to the software. It is these models that play an important part in Synopsys VDKs (Virtualizer Development Kits) for mobile designs. Virtual prototypes built on the aggregation of Fast Models from ARM, Synopsys’ DesignWare Interface IP models, third party IP vendor models, and mobile semiconductor IP models, are the tool enabling early software development and fueling the continuous stream of innovations in the mobile market. With ARM TechCon (ARM’s technology conference hosted in Silicon Valley, California) coming up around the same time as Halloween, it is interesting to realize how my family life and my job related activities have found some sort of synergy. It is great to see the overall positive impact that the mobile revolution is having on each one of us. While virtual prototyping is only one part of the entire enablement chain, it is exactly that which made the current boom of mobile electronics possible: an entire chain of companies working together to deliver something that is bigger than its parts: true synergy between hardware components and software stacks. And apparently that even influenced the choice of my children’s Halloween costume.

Visit Synopsys at ARM TechCon, booth #612 on October 30, from 10:00am – 7:15pm and October 31, from 10:00am – 4:00pm.

 

 

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What Type Of Insurance Do You Have?

Posted by Tom De Schutter on September 27th, 2013

With the software development effort now accounting for roughly half of the overall SoC development cost, any delay on the software availability side can have a big impact on the SoC availability. As one engineer of a major semiconductor vendor expressed to me: “The SoC hardware is typically only available a couple of weeks before we want to announce and demonstrate it at a major show like CES. If we then still have to do any software development or validation, we are in trouble.”

Well, he actually said something different than “we are in trouble,” but I decided to clean up the language for usage in this blog. The effect is even bigger if delays mean missing deployment in a specific end-product, such as usage of the SoC in a particular tablet or mobile phone.

If we agree that there is a major business impact at stake when software causes the delay in the availability of a new SoC, then what can we do about it? As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure. It is better to prevent software from being the bottleneck in the first place rather than to scramble at the end to make everything work in the final weeks before an important show or customer meeting. Semiconductor vendors around the world have realized that virtual prototyping provides the ideal insurance against software availability delays. Why wait for hardware availability to start software development and then try to fit everything in a very tight schedule when you can start the software development in parallel with the hardware development and compress the overall timeline. These SoC vendors want the right level of insurance against SoC release delays.

As with every type of insurance, coverage is not equal from all vendors. So what are the levels of coverage that you should check off from your virtual prototyping providers? Well, model availability definitely ranks high up in the list. Without a good starting point, creation of the virtual prototype takes a lot longer, thus reducing its insurance value to enable early software development, where the emphasis is on early. Then there is expertise. You want a virtual prototype provider who has the right level of expertise, both in helping to model a virtual prototype, as well as helping software developers to maximize the value of the debug and analysis tools for their specific application.

In addition, this expertise should be coupled with the right level of support, especially local support. What good is it to have car insurance when your insurance agent is always on hold helping someone else or is on the other side of the world and cannot be reached when you need service? To top it off, you want your insurance to cover the right set of ‘risks’. Are you insured against fire damage, theft or earthquakes (where applicable)? Or in virtual prototyping terms, does your virtual prototyping tool help you with dealing with ‘risks’ such as debugging inter-processor communication and synchronization points, optimization of cache utilization through exposure of cache counters, power analysis and software performance optimization focused on frequency scaling.

Make sure to check your coverage carefully. Cheap insurance might look attractive in the short term, but it might not offer what you are really looking for—coverage when you run into an issue.

 

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Simple Concepts Can Lead to Big Improvements

Posted by Tom De Schutter on August 30th, 2013

As I am just back from vacation, it is an ideal time to reflect on where we are with virtual prototyping and VDKs (Virtualizer Development Kits). For over a year now we have been developing reference VDKs based on ARM’s Versatile Express board. And it has really made a difference in how we engage with customers. Although we of course always had demos, which were similar to these reference VDKs, having a product quality deliverable that can be used out-of-the-box with software developers makes a big difference. It has helped with the adoption of VDKs at multiple companies across industries and geographies. With only minor additions, or sometimes even no additions, software developers at these customers have been able to bootstrap their device driver, boot code and OS code bring up. On top of that VDKs are helping companies across the supply chain to enable early software development. Semiconductor companies can quickly assemble a VDK for the relevant part of their SoC (depending on the software task) and develop their specific hardware dependent software like e.g. device drivers for all the interface IP of the SoC. System companies can then receive that VDK from their semiconductor vendor and bring up their unique software content without having to wait for board availability. Just recently a company in one part of the world licensed our VDK for ARM big.LITTLE processing. They are in the process of doing some minor customizations to tune the VDK towards their specific SoC. This is possible as they only have to care about the pieces which are relevant for the software that they and their customer want to bring up. Once the relevant drivers are developed and validated, they plan to ship the VDK with their software customization to their systems company customer on the other side of the world. That customer also just licensed our VDK technology to ramp up on the key debug and analysis capabilities that VDKs offer and will be instantly ready to start bring up of their customized OS. By adopting the virtual prototyping methodology and leveraging our reference VDKs these companies are able to significantly accelerate the schedule of their software availability and in the process, improve quality as the software and hardware are tested together before the hardware is completely fixed. This parallel effortresults in the software and hardware being better be tuned for each other.

Simple concepts can lead to big improvements. And what is more logical than starting your software development early by creating a flexible C-model of your design. This recent example of early software development across such distributed geographies shows that more and more companies are coming to this realization.

 

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Drafting For First Place

Posted by Tom De Schutter on July 25th, 2013

I am a big fan of professional cycling events, and nothing can beat the Tour de France. Every year the best riders from around the world gather for what looks like an impossible task: This year they have to ride 3,404 kilometers (2,115 miles) in three weeks including five hill stages and six mountain stages. After completing that entire distance, all that separates the first rider, who earns the yellow jersey, and the second is a couple of minutes. Sometimes it is even measured in just a few seconds.

It is quite interesting how a sport that seems to be mostly about individual performance actually has a lot of team tactics that often determine winning or losing. One of those factors is the importance of drafting behind someone to reduce wind resistance. Each team will try to make sure that its best rider is shielded from the wind as much as possible. The wind factor is especially influential during the flat stages when trying to stay ahead of the peloton (the main group of riders). Teams with sprinters (people who are really good at accelerating over a relatively short distance and typically win when going to the finish line in a big group) can rotate at the front of the peloton and thus spend less energy pedaling against the wind than a smaller group of riders who each have to spend more time at the front of the group where the wind resistance is the highest.

So how does this relate to virtual prototyping for software development you wonder? More than you might think. I like to compare the transaction-level models, required to build and run software on a virtual prototype, with bicycles. While there is a minimum set of requirements for a bicycle and a model to be useful, there are specialized bicycles for specialized tasks, such as a time trial. Similarly, you need specific capabilities in your model depending on the software task you want to perform. If you want to test a network of VDKs (Virtualizer Development Kits), you need to have a model that enables this type of connection.

Besides models, off course you also need capabilities that ease the debugging and analysis of the software activity. Compare it to the team infrastructure that helps the riders, who in our analogy are the software developers, to perform their job. I am thinking about the mechanics that make sure that the bicycles are up to the task and who quickly fix mechanical problems during the race, much like model developers whose task it is to make sure models are available early and with the right characteristics. During the race, the riders receive all sorts of information about the distance to the finish line, the time difference between them and the rest of the peloton and so forth. This is very similar to the debugging and analysis features in a VDK. And one of the key differentiators of virtual prototypes, besides the most obvious one being early, ahead of hardware availability, is the fact that they enable better team work.

Whether it’s between the hardware team and the software team, between the semiconductor vendor and their customer, or the OS provider and the rest of the supply chain, virtual prototypes enable the right exchange of information. They offer a way to reproduce issues and an easier way to work together to optimize the overall system. What better way to win the yellow jersey and fight to hold on to it until the time it really counts (at the end of the three weeks during the last stage in Paris), when you have an entire team that will help you get to the finish line? Be it by keeping you out of the wind, catching up to a competitor or literally lending you a wheel, having a good team is essential to perform.

I want to leave you with a great example of teamwork and leveraging the wind. For those of you who don’t want to watch the entire video, go to 00:31 to see one team getting away by coordinating the team rotation perfectly or go to 00:59 to watch the stage summary.

 

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A team is only as strong as its captain

Posted by Tom De Schutter on July 1st, 2013

Last week I was in Cambridge, UK. Although the weather wasn’t great, which seems to be pretty standard every time I visit, it actually didn’t rain a whole lot which was a victory in itself. On one of the evenings I was eating with some colleagues at a restaurant overlooking Parker’s Piece, a 25-acre square of grass near the center of Cambridge. Frequent visitors of Cambridge probably know the place I am talking about. Although the place is regarded as the birthplace of the rules of Association Football (at least according to Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parker’s_Piece), it was actually a bunch of high school children playing cricket that got our attention. Given that my colleagues were from the UK, it was the ideal time to learn more about the rules of this “mysterious” game. I can’t say that I now consider myself a cricket expert, but it was fun to learn and actually see many aspects of the game.

Like with all team sports, I learned that in cricket each player has a specific task and position to attend to and each of these positions has a specific name, which I really cannot remember anymore (at least not without checking Wikipedia). It is fascinating to hear the role of each position. Again, like with all team sports, there is a captain who is responsible for making tactical decisions such as determining the batting order, the placement of the fielders and the rotation of bowlers. This reminds me of the program manager role in electronics companies. The impact of having a good program manager can be huge for the schedule of a specific project. He or she is making sure that the relative order of tasks, the interdependencies between deliverables and the amount of resources allocated to a specific task are all aligned to optimize the overall schedule and produce a quality product on time. The program manager role becomes even more vital when you cross team boundaries and especially when you cross the boundaries between hardware and software teams. That is why virtual prototyping is most successfully deployed at companies who insert a strong program manager into the process. Similarly to how a team’s strength often relies on its captain, so does a hardware-software co-development project, enabled by virtual prototyping, relies on tight coordination between hardware and software checkpoints and thus needs a good captain (aka program manager) to make the tactical decisions. There is no better way to create a great overall product than by ensuring coordination across the different pieces.

This also reminds me of a fun video that I saw over the weekend. It was made for father’s day and shows that old enemies can always become new friends. With virtual prototyping in the role of matchmaker, hardware and software have reached a new level of friendship.

Enjoy the video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-St6ogOIzw

 

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