Any tool that was developed for ASIC development has to be good for FPGA development as well, right? I mean putting logic into an FPGA saves all of the backend nightmares and all of the layout issues; the only thing you have to worry about with an FPGA is making it fit, and a little bit of timing – right?
Well, not so fast. You only have to listen to what some users had to say at a DesignCon panel this year to find out that there are many somewhat hidden issues that are unique to FPGAs, such as the PCB design and the highly configurable nature of the FPGA pins. One panelist went so far as to say “FPGAs are too darn flexible”. So it is perhaps surprising that we do not see more tools available that directly tackle these challenges.
There used to be two companies in the high-level synthesis (HLS) space that principally targeted FPGAs – AutoESL and Synfora. Both of these have now been gobbled up by Xilinx and Synopsys, respectively. In both cases this was for “undisclosed amounts,” and we all know what that means. So is there hope for any EDA company that tries to focus specifically on FPGA problems?
One company Altium (www.altium.com) is perhaps out of the mold of the traditional EDA company. Based “Down Under” in Australia, they are seeking to develop an enterprise class of tools that tackle everything from FPGA design, PCB design, manufacturing, data management and so much more in between and offering it all at a price that every FPGA designer can probably afford $5000. That is the complete packaged price, not some unbundled pieces onto which you have to add lots of options.
I spoke with Altium back in August of 2010 when they were originally gearing up for the launch of their 10.0 release. That got delayed when they purchased Morfik – a company that had been developing cloud technology – so that Altium 10 could be made a true enterprise solution. Well, the release has now happened (January 31st 2011). Back when I first saw the preview of this release it appeared to me to be a cross between the Mentor’s Falcon 8.0 framework – which was a disaster that almost made Mentor a thing of the past, and EDA360 – we shall have to see if that has a better fate. So you can imagine my trepidation when they showed me this product. With the added technology from Morfik, it is even more so, but they may just have the right combination of features and business plan to pull this off and given the number of FPGA design starts these days, they may also make some money at it. It would appear that the rest of the EDA industry is only interested in those FPGA design starts that are of the same order of complexity as an ASIC, just not the volume to make the ASIC cost effective. That is a tiny fraction of the FPGA design starts, leaving Altium with almost no competition for the smaller FPGAs.
Altium claims they have the only product that combines FPGA, PCB, embedded software and IP in addition to linking data streams from many parts suppliers and manufacturers (see Figure 1). Just like EDA360, they combine the IP, software, block design and integration for this particular flow.
Figure 1: Altium Designer 10.0 takes you through the
complete design, implementation and fabrication process.
They also claim to have sold to over 800 new customers in the past year and I asked if they believed this was due to people looking for cheaper products during a recessionary period. They pulled out the figures that showed that price was only a marginal factor. According to their survey, only 14% said that price was a major consideration. The number one purchase reason was the unified platform, followed closely by features. And why is the unified platform so important – well you see, 84% of them said that their productivity doubled or more (see Figure 2). Now when was the last time you spent $5k and got a doubling of your productivity?
Figure 2: Survey results showing productivity improvements
Now everyone who reads my blogs will know that I really like prototypes and this is another of Altium’s strong points. While today it only really works for a restricted set of systems – those based on the wishbone architecture, with a promise of more to come – it enables systems to be constructed where many of the details such as interrupts, memory maps and the like are all taken care of for you. Then it can be downloaded into the Nanoboard 3000 and hey presto you have a complete prototype available. The Nanoboard comes with lots of peripherals connection, expansion slots, I/O connectors and everything else necessary to develop some pretty sophisticated applications.
So, it would appear that it is possible to create a sophisticated tool chain at a price affordable by almost all FPGA developers – even those working out of a garage. So, I think I should add Altium to my list of companies that could be the next big thing in EDA. I don’t know how good the tools are, but the business model is certainly a refreshing change.
Brian Bailey – keeping you covered