Altium - Opening A New Umbrella


Altium is an unusual company in that it its headquarters are in Australia. The firm has been around since 1985. Most of its business has been in the PCB arena but the firm now seeks to expand into FPGA and system design. At DAC I had a chance to talk with Nancy Eastman, President of Altium, Inc, the firm's US subsidiary.

Nancy's previous responsibilities included directing international sales and support and managing engineering after Altium acquired ACCEL Technologies in 2000. Nancy has over 25 years in developing and marketing software for engineers including 14 years in EDA. She has been in her current position for 5 years.

I should note that I once worked for Altium, actually a different Altium. After IBM sold its mechanical CADAM mainframe and workstation business to Dassault Systemes, the company changed its name from CADAM, Inc to Altium in order to avoid confusion with the product name CADAM. The remaining parts of the firm were Microcadam, IBM CAD, P-CAD and a joint venture in Japan. After the mechanical businesses split off, IBM sold Altium to Accel Technologies in 1995. Protel International acquired Accel in 2000 and in 2001 changed its name to Altium Limited.

On a quarterly basis I do a financial report of the EDA industry including Altium. Your firm is the toughest vendor to track because you report in Australian dollars with a geographical breakdown in terms of local currencies. How has the firm done in US dollars?
It's very difficult. We have performed very well year over year but the US dollar has weakened significantly against the Australian dollar. Where in fact we might have done 12% or 15% better it turns out -2%. It just kills us. Last year we did about AUD $42M. The exchange rate in today's dollars is about 75 cents, so US$32 to $33 million.

What's new at Altium?
We have expanded way beyond the PCB world into a holistic approach. We've created a brand new corporate brochure that reflects a lot of things that are happening at the company. We are going through a significant change. Our new product name Altium Designer is a product that spans three industries: PCB, FPGA and the embedded system industries. A single product, a single executable with many different individual brands and also licensing options of the Altium Designer product. You may be familiar with Protel, perhaps Nexar (the FPGA system) and our recent announcements regarding document viewing, PCAD release and so forth.

Let me give you a picture of where we are and why we see it as so significant. I describe Altium Designer as a kind of umbrella. Basically there are three industries as I mention. PCB, traditionally that has been the Protel product, FPGA capabilities released last year as Nexar, then we have the embedded systems that traditionally has been Tasking technology, these are compilers and debuggers that have run on hard processors. What we have done is brought that technology in so that we have compilers and debuggers running on soft cores on FPGAs in the Nexar product. All of that is called Altium Designer. A single executable. We have licensing options so that we can access different technologies or we even have a technology that covers all design entry whether it is for the PCB or for the FPGA, which is a product called Circuit Studio. In the future we will be able to have licenses for roles within an organization for example a CAD Librarian. A CAD Librarian might need pieces of this and that, some editors and some graphics capabilities to put the libraries together. Another role might be just the compiler and debuggers for targeting soft cores. So you can see how we will be able to grow. We can add technologies and we can assign them to any particular role we want, a great deal of flexibility. Altium Designer will be our new brand name moving forward. That's what's happening.

Altium Designer is significant in several different ways. We are spanning, truly spanning; a single product integrated between these three domains. But we also see that Altium Designer is available at a very important time in the industry. If we go back and look at microprocessor growth from the beginning, it was about 20 years when microprocessors became a commodity. After it became a commodity, it then allowed the microprocessor to be used in incredible ways people never thought about before. Put it in a toaster. All of those things we take for granted now. What happened at this point at the commodity juncture, it basically created a new industry, the embedded systems industry. What we see is the fact that the FPGAs are on a very similar curve. We are about 20 years out and these FPGAs have now become a commodity. We are at the point where we are starting to see embedded intelligence not only having the advantage of application software being reconfigurable and all the benefits that go around that, we are seeing that the entire system can be reconfigurable, the hardware and software side, soft microprocessors, soft peripheral interfaces plus the application software that run on them. All that will drive a new kind of thinking, a new paradigm in the way we approach electronic products. It is in preparation for this very steep curve, this flexibility that Altium Designer is already available for that approach to electronic produce design. It does that because all of a sudden the barriers that had been between these three industries come down. If all of a sudden you have things set up and you had an algorithm in software that you decided to tighten it up, so you create it in hardware, move that logic with relative ease. The same interface, the same integrated code. The same thing you can move logic between PCB and FPGA much more trivially. As we go forward moving from a PCB that is fairly complex that has an FPGA on it, it may have a processor on it and all the peripheral interface logic in hardware and then you might have your physically connection out and of course your application code running on your microprocessor. Altium Designer handles that case. We can handle the software development with the Tasking product line, we can handle the FPGA with the Nexar product line and we can do the PCB with the Protel but what Altium Designer does is move us into the future so that we look at a very simplistic PCB; put almost everything, all of your digital logic, and stuff it into the FPGA. Of course you have the analog and that has to remain on the board. And you still have the connections to go out. What we are saying is that more and more of your stuff is moved into a soft domain. This has incredible capacity, it has an incredible future. We say that Altium Designer future proofs you product design because as a company makes the transition from designing traditional ways into stuffing more and more logic into reprogrammable devices, this product is there and it is already allowing you to do that in whatever timeframe the company desires.

Some of the advantages. Part of allowing this transition is breaking down these barriers. What does that mean? The Nexar product is our system design product in the FPGA space but it has some special characteristics. In the first place it comes with intellectual property. Included in there are IP cores 851, Z80 and a PIC, very basic 8-bit processors. We have the TSK3000, a 32-bit Altium processor with a small footprint, Harvard architecture, FPGA ready. We support the PowerPC through the hard processor inside the Virtex II Pro from Xilinx along with reprogrammable fabric. We have interfaces to that PowerPC and debuggers to support that. Additionally we have IP for high level things such as CAM interface, VGA, basic logic timers, adders, multiplexers … We have another interesting class of IP, virtual instruments. If you are testing a PCB, what do you use? A logical analyzer? We have virtual versions of instrumentation to test a PCB: logic analyzer, clock, clock control, frequency tester, digital I/O and so forth. You can set and also detect signals. We have taken this IP, test it and synthesized it for a range of target architectures. All of this IP can go to Xilinx Spartan (all of them), Xilinx Virtex (any of them), Altera (Cyclones, Stratix) and also Actel ProASIC+. We will continue to work on this list but that is what is available today.

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Review Article
  • Re: Altium - Opening A New Umbrella July 15, 2015
    Reviewed by 'vigneshrock1990'

     CEO of the greatest semiconductor IP association, amassed on the same stage to inspect a broad mixed bag of issues that will influence the future direction of the contraptions arrangement organic group.

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  • The little guy April 02, 2014
    Reviewed by 'Unhappy Customer'
    I find this article interesting as it puts in perspective the market that Altium is actually targeting.
    For people like myself who build a small number of PCB's with less than 500 components with a mixture of digital and analog and power on the one board, the product is a pain in the neck.
    Finding components which you would expect in a product like this to be fairly easy and the core of the product is just a waste of time.
    The reality is that you want to do something you make your own library of components and go from there.
    Build or download components from someone else who has spent the time to make and model them but rarely from Altium.
    Try and find a resistor or diode or op amp in the libraries, good luck.
    I hope any future product addresses this significant shortcoming.

      2 of 3 found this review helpful.
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