Software a critical requirement
Christian Plante, director of marketing for low-power and mixed-signal FPGAs at Actel, said the FPGA market attracts startups partly because of the business model, where one chip fits many markets, with the potential for high gross margins. "Given that the FPGA market is no longer a crowded market, it looks appealing," Plante said. "But the barriers to entry are quite high, with a large investment needed not only in chip design, but also in software tools."
The big FPGA vendors treat design tools as loss leaders. Altera's customers, Balough said, have "grown to expect tools of tremendous sophistication priced at an artificially low level." Xilinx has more software engineers than hardware engineers; at Altera, the mix is roughly 50-50.
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Third-party EDA firms like Synopsys Inc. and Mentor Graphics Corp. offer front-end synthesis tools that are vendor-independent. But back-end place-and-route tools require tighter coupling with an FPGA vendor's architecture. The startups say they have robust tools that offer a familiar experience for seasoned FPGA users. In developing these tools, some of them, including Achronix and recent casualty Cswitch, engaged India's SoftJin Technologies Pte. Ltd., which creates customized design tools using a combination of EDA building blocks and services.
But according to Mark Moran, senior product manager of FPGAs at Xilinx, it's not enough simply to offer a set of tools that a designer can use to implement a design in an FPGA. Over the years, at the urging of customers, Xilinx has devoted countless man-hours to upgrading tool efficiency; the work has improved runtime, memory footprint and quality of results, Moran said.
"All of these types of things are not things you can build instantly," he said.
See also: Sizing up the contenders