Peggy Aycinena is a freelance journalist and Editor of EDA Confidential at www.aycinena.com. She can be reached at peggy at aycinena dot com.
MyDesign: CAST clarifies vendor/customer relationship
February 13th, 2014 by Peggy Aycinena
At last month’s DesignCon in Santa Clara, I went looking for some IP advice to help in assembling the bits and pieces for my Dick Tracy key chain/wristband design project. I got no farther than the CAST booth, because those guys had answers to all of my questions.
After an hour-long conversation with CEO Hal Barbour, COO Nikos Zervas, and PR & Media Rep Paul Lindemann, I’m quite sure no IP company, small and large, could be better at partnering with a product team looking for IP selection guidance.
We first discussed the processor core; CAST sells an 8-bit family and a 32-bit. After listening to the features required in my product – keyless entry and ignition for the car, remote control of the garage door, monitoring the amounts of milk in the fridge, and telling the time – the CAST guys said an 8-bit core would provide sufficient horsepower for the sensing, calculation and control features I described, even in the face of the mixed-signal, ADC demands of the product.
They also noted that the 8051 is by far CAST’s most popular core and useful to people working on Internet-of-Things ideas, particularly if WiFi features are not needed. With WiFi, a 32-bit processor probably makes better sense.
I asked about a price point for the core I would use. From research I’ve been doing in anticipation of my Dick Tracy design, I know that prices for IP cores are usually as closely guarded as Edward Snowden’s forwarding address. Hal Barbour said that CAST has always been pretty open about that: “Depending on the configuration, our 8-bit core will cost you somewhere between $30, 000 and $50,000.”
He clarified, however, that the pricing gets quickly more complicated as decisions are made about the process technology – norms these days range from 65 nanometers, down to 40 or 28 – with NRE’s going up as the process node goes down, because “the cost of IP is very heavy in the back-end process.”
In addition, anticipated volume of the target product can affect the price. “If you buy from ARM, for instance,” Barbour explained, “you’ll pay licensing fees and royalties. CAST’s cores are royalty free, however, [so volume is not an issue in our pricing].”
Having a ballpark figure for the core was useful, but I still needed lots of other information. Was CAST willing to give that advice for free to a potential customer?
Hal and Nikos Zervas both said yes, explaining that although potential customers usually show up with a pre-determined idea of which CAST core is best for them, they often need additional consultation on a host of other issues and CAST is willing to give that help as a courtesy – within reason.
“Sometimes a free consultation includes helping the customer understand what software development tools are available, or assistance in decisions around power or required clock rate,” Hal said. “Certainly we want to help, and we definitely want to make sure the core we’re proposing is the best one, but we’re not a design services company. Our business is about shrink-wrapped IP.”
Paul Lindemann added, “There’s a presumption that if the customer’s designing stuff using IP – USBs, etc. – that they understand it, but the customer may not actually have that level of understanding.”
In that case, per the CAST guys, courteously educating the customer turns out to be part of their process of selling the core.
Per Nikos, “Interpersonal skills are important in dealing with customers – we don’t lose business by being nice. It’s always important to be patient, to dive into the product details and explain its [relevance to the customer’s project]. We often have to educate the customer, although that’s not typical with the 8051. If custom tailoring of a core is required, however, it can be risky. We don’t do that type of work for free.”
Hal said, “We don’t provide general design services, but we may offer integration services – help with gluing and nailing the project together. Although, if your product requires a big core we might charge for the peripheral design services.”
Nikos added that in large companies, various parts of the design often move forward in a massively parallel way, but that’s not always possible in small companies. Whereas a series of steps in the large company might be completed in a matter of days, it may require weeks in a smaller organization.
That’s another case, per Nikos, where CAST might be able to help – advising the customer on what additional factors they need to take into consideration in working through their design.
Obviously, this question of how much consulting IP vendors like CAST are willing to offer is a tricky one. In talking to Hal, Nikos, and Paul, it sounded like it’s decided on a case-by-case basis, and that’s very much the industry norm.
Understanding that CAST will offer design advice and consultation within reason, I asked what comes after that in the process of developing my Dick Tracy wristband/key chain.
Hal said, “Next for your wearable device, you’ll need to build a prototype to see if it can really work.”
Nikos concurred, “We can tell you what to factor in for your design, the costs of building a prototype versus simulation.”
He admonished, however, not to forget that verification is a big, nasty, unavoidable evil in any product development: “Verification is your job, or you can outsource it, but [either way] that’s where any mistakes you’ve made will be identified.”
In the meanwhile, I know from many conversations with people in the IP industry that the business side of the deal can be truly complex. I asked Hal about that and he said, “When it comes to an actual contract, our license agreement is a 17-page document. Appendices can be added, but are not always necessary.”
Hal emphasized again that in general CAST is selling shrink-wrapped IP, so their license agreement is fairly straightforward. “Nonetheless,” he said, “as you work hard on your [design], you’re still going to need expert feedback. Giving that feedback is something we may be able to offer.”
Nikos said, “In the world of selling IP, nothing is black and white – it’s complex. [We want to help], but a good reputation is really easy to build and equally easy to destroy. We want to be a good IP supplier, but the last thing we want to do is make recommendations in areas we don’t know well.”
Hal offered a final nuanced word of advice: “There’s no substitute for experience. We’ve been around for 20 years and have a lot of experience dealing with customers. We’ll work closely with you as a customer to help you make the right decisions, but at the end of the day [the product you’re developing] is your vision.”
CAST made it clear in my hour-long tutorial with them that buying any kind of IP is a complicated process, one that requires both a trusted supplier who can talk through my design issues and a willingness on my part to accept ultimate responsibility for my decisions related to my design.
CAST is offering something even more important than reasonably priced cores. They’re offering simple, straightforward honesty, and that’s something that’s truly priceless.