There are far more FPGA design starts than ASIC design starts, but far fewer FPGA verification tools. Startup GateRocket Inc. stepped forward last week to fill that gap with a "device-native" FPGA verification solution that includes hardware and software.
"People have been aggressively developing FPGAs, but they're having significant difficulty with the verification process. It's slow, it's complicated and it's inaccurate," said Dave Orecchio, president and CEO of GateRocket (Bedford, Mass.). "We believe there's a significant and unserved market of people doing FPGA designs, and we believe we have something that's different from anything out there."
What GateRocket has is RocketDrive, a box that contains either an Altera Stratix II or Xilinx Virtex-4 FPGA. It hooks up to a Linux PC over a PCI cable. RocketDrive claims to validate designs 10 to 100 times faster than software simulation, while running as part of the customer's simulation environment.
The six-person company got its start in 2004 because a chip designer made a painful transition from ASIC to FPGA design. That designer was co-founder Chris Schalick, now vice president of engineering and CTO. While working at Teradyne, Orecchio said, Schalick had a lot of difficulty getting FPGAs to work properly in the lab because he lacked clear visibility into what was happening inside the devices. So Schalick left Teradyne, developed the concept behind RocketDrive and launched the company.
Orecchio joined last year and helped line up $1.25 million in angel investments. The EDA veteran previously held sales and marketing positions at Viewlogic, Synopsys, Innoveda, Parametric Technologies and DAFCA. Alain Hanover, original chairman of Viewlogic, is chairman of the board of GateRocket.
RocketDrive, available now for shipment, claims to let designers exhaustively validate and test an FPGA design before committing to production. GateRocket's software lets users load portions of the FPGA design into the RocketDrive, using the customer's FPGA implementation tools, and then link it to the user's existing simulation platform. Designers can speed verification by running on actual hardware. They can investigate bugs and try alternatives, and run application-level software against a device-native representation of the design.
"We bring it into the loop of simulation," Orecchio said. "I don't have to change anything with regard to my testbench or my design methodology. I can gain the speed benefits of the RocketDrive and the accuracy of true chip behavior, with all the capabilities of my simulator."
FPGA designers today often use evaluation boards to verify designs. But there's a fixed pinout for the FPGA, Orecchio said. Also, he said, the design loaded into the FPGA is at the gate level, and even if a designer can see what's going on inside the chip, it's not related to his RTL code.
"You don't have the visibility, you don't have the context of signal names and you don't have the debug ability," Orecchio said. RocketDrive provides those capabilities. "In essence,we've brought the lab into the verification environment."
RocketDrive users first load some or all of their RTL design into the device, along with their simulation testbench. The designer's own tools are used to synthesize, place and route the Xilinx or Altera FPGA. RocketDrive can be programmed for any pinout configuration. From then on, said Orecchio, it just runs as part of the customer's simulation environment, with all the debug features of the simulator.
RocketDrive can be installed in less than half an hour, Orecchio said. "Our promise to customers is that any FPGA-ready design can be loaded into RocketDrive in a morning or less, and most of that is spent running vendor tools."
Priced starting at $25,000, RocketDrive is geared for the high end of the cost-sensitive FPGA design marketplace. GateRocket, which contracts out the manufacturing, plans to sell through value-added resellers and will initially focus on North America only. The company has launched an FPGA verification blog at www.devicenative.com.
"The response we've been getting from customers has been fantastic," Orecchio said. "We have over 30 prospects just in the New England area. People are thirsty for a solution that's easy to use, and we're bringing that to the marketplace."