Santa Cruz, Calif. Matlab, one of the world's most widely used products for algorithmic development, has long occupied its own niche far removed from EDA and hardware implementation. That's about to change as its creator, The MathWorks, joins with third-party vendors to bring Matlab closer to FPGA and ASIC design.
As such, The MathWorks is staking a claim for inclusion in the electronic system-level (ESL) design market, alongside SystemC modeling tools, behavioral synthesis and high-level verification.
If there's a fit, Matlab could quickly turn into the 800-pound gorilla in that market, given its huge installed base and its use as the tool of choice for DSP algorithm development.
Matlab, which provides a procedural language that can be used for a broad range of mathematical applications, claims a seat count in the hundreds of thousands. Simulink, a simulation tool associated with Matlab, claims an installed base in the tens of thousands.
Matlab and Simulink serve a variety of applications, including biotech, financial modeling and flight dynamics. But Ken Karnofsky, marketing director for DSP and communications at The MathWorks (Natick, Mass.), estimated that one-third to one-half of the roughly 1 million Matlab users are involved in electronic systems design.
Of these, most are designing DSP algorithms or control systems for embedded software. But Matlab and Simulink are increasingly used for DSP-based FPGA design, especially since both Xilinx Inc. and Altera Corp. have tools that provide direct paths to implementation.
Thus far, the pathway to ASIC design is less developed, generally requiring a manual translation from the Matlab language to SystemC, VHDL or Verilog. While some FPGA designers are using Matlab and Simulink directly, Karnofsky said, ASIC designers generally don't, taking instead models that a systems architect has translated from Matlab.
"The electronics market is a large, growing market for us," Karnofsky said. "I wouldn't position us as an EDA tool in the traditional sense, but as the EDA world expands, there will be more overlap."
Just last week, three EDA vendors agreed and came forth with new links to Matlab and Simulink. Startup Catalytic Inc. introduced a tool that facilitates the conversion of floating-point Matlab models to fixed-point models; CoWare Inc. tightened links between its Signal Processing Worksystem (SPW) and Matlab; and AccelChip Inc., which synthesizes Matlab models into RTL Verilog, expanded its intellectual-property (IP) library (see Sept. 27, page 49).
They weren't the first. An earlier agreement with Mentor Graphics Corp. linked Matlab and Simulink with the ModelSim HDL simulator, letting designers create testbenches in Matlab and bring HDL models back into Simulink. More recently, Cadence Design Systems Inc. announced an interface between its PSpice analog simulator and Matlab.
The growing connection between the EDA community and Matlab became apparent at a recent panel discussion entitled "Matlab the other system design language," at an industry conference in Santa Clara, Calif., last week.
"Matlab is the language of choice for people doing mathematical development," said Randy Allen, chief executive officer of Catalytic (Palo Alto, Calif.). "Everyone simulates in Matlab and goes to something else for implementation. The real key is getting synthesis working."
"DSP algorithm exploration always seems to start with Matlab," said Dennis Brophy, director of strategic business development at the Model Technology Group of Mentor Graphics. He noted, however, that Matlab is best-suited for FPGA prototyping. "Matlab is probably not the thing that solves the SoC [system-on-chip] ASIC problem, where minimizing power on-chip is very important," Brophy said. "There, we're getting better traction with C/C++."
Johannes Stahl, director of SPW marketing at CoWare (San Jose, Calif.), had a more skeptical view. "Matlab is very successful in the early phases of the design flow, but when you add all the details needed to get the design done, designers need more." He expressed doubt that Matlab can both express all designer intent and produce good-quality results.
Karnofsky of The MathWorks noted that SPW is largely complementary to Matlab, whereas it's a direct competitor of Simulink. As for AccelChip and Catalytic, he said, "there's some overlap, but there's an opportunity to be complementary."
Matlab, he noted, has a fixed-point toolbox that offers some of the functionality of Catalytic's third-party Fixed-Point DSP Studio product. But there are pros and cons. "Catalytic has conversion technology that's not as smoothly integrated, but it also has compiler technology that offers execution speed we don't have today," Karnofsky said.
Further, Karnofsky said, The MathWorks recently introduced a filter design toolbox that synthesizes VHDL and Verilog code. This is the company's first direct HDL generation. He acknowledged, however, that AccelChip offers a broader synthesis capability that's not restricted to filters.
For FPGA design, he said, Xilinx's System Generator and Altera's DSP Builder let users build bit-true, cycle-accurate models of IP, refine floating-point to fixed-point models and implement the models on FPGA blocks. The resulting HDL then goes directly into a synthesis flow.
"FPGAs represent a programming challenge we can automate in our tools," Karnofsky said. "It's harder to do in the ASIC world."
One question that came up in last week's panel discussion is whether The MathWorks will someday open the Matlab language. Proprietary languages don't do well in the EDA world, panelists noted.
"Look at Verilog," said Vin Ratford, president and chief executive officer of AccelChip (Milpitas, Calif.). "So long as it was proprietary its growth was restricted. If they opened up [Matlab] it would make it a much richer marketplace for themselves and everyone."
"We'll keep an open mind, but there are no current plans to do so," Karnofsky said.
The MathWorks is a privately held company with about $250 million in revenue and 1,100 employees.