Altium - Opening A New Umbrella

Pre-synthesized, ready to go. All of the logic is tucked away and you don't have to worry about it any more. We are schematic driven. We have a schematic for the FPGA. You build up your system in the same way that you build your PCB. You take logic and add it to your design. In this manner, not in a single system manner, which is traditional today, to view the FPGA as a single piece of code. We are building a system using logic blocks in the same manner as a PCB is built. You can have a microprocessor, maybe a second microprocessor; we can add memory, some peripherals. You might want to be driving a CAM bus. You might have some basic logic, whatever. All of this gets connected using wires in a schematic. We then synthesize and download it onto the FPGA. In this case we have a development board. It could be anybody's development board. There are a couple of special things. Virtual instruments get linked right in here, so we might have a logic analyzer and probe the signals going in and out of the microprocessor or we might add an LAX here to detect what is going on with the peripherals, maybe set the clock with a frequency generator. The point is that we can take these instruments and place them right into the design. We can synthesize the design and download them into the FPGA they are actually within our design. As with any microprocessor we have separate application code that runs on the microprocessor within the FPGA. The way we test our system is that we have gotten completely rid of system simulation. You don't need to simulate this thing together. How do we test that? We actually run the software on the processor. We examine it using virtual instruments, we have soft panels up. In that way we have this interactive hardware testing going on. If things go wrong we change the hardware by changing our schematic, re-download and re-run in real time to see what's happening. We also have boundary scan capability that would be standard testing and we have a full source level debugger. It's multiprocessor debugging. You have full debugging capability; register checking, memory, stepping thru, watches … the same technology as the embedded system. That's the description of the Nexar product.

The advantages of Altium Designer is that we take it one step further. The FPGA of course goes onto the PCB. Within Altium designer we can also create the PCB using what has been branded as Protel. All of the pin and gating swapping (lets say you have hundreds of pins on your FPGA) is very well coordinated. We have a very elegant way of pin and gate swapping and synchronizing the PCB schematic with the FPGA schematic. You can either set signals within the PCB and back annotate them and force the FPGA to use those pins or you can create FPGA and force the pin outs on your PCB. You can go backwards and forward. That's kind of the view we see. The really nice thing about that is it lets us break down a lot of these barriers. If you have a guy who knows how to do PCBs, today for that person to go to FPG design they have to acquire HTL expertise, simulation expertise,.. They need to source tools from different locations. They need to purchase IP. They need to put it all together. What typically ends up happening is that you focus on a particular FPGA. Yu make decisions very early. Things like your IP and maybe even your tools are very focused to that target. We are completely vendor independent. We are independent. If later on you want to convert this 8 bit professor to a 32 bit processor, you can do that on the fly. You pull them out. They have similar link ups. We have some nice capabilities for bussing to make that fairly easy.

If you want to pull logic off your PCB, you can edit your PCB schematic, put logic into your FPGA schematic. So you see that many of the traditional barriers have now come down. A single product, single solution that is completely integrated. Altium Designer will in fact speed up the progress and allow this to happen. More and more intelligence can get into the FPGA and provide benefits to those companies who are creating electronic products to have the flexibility that reprogrammable hardware offers.

One of the things that drove the commodization of microprocessors was price. Aren't FPGAs still to expensive to be considered a commodity item?
It is getting pretty close. You should go to the Altera website. They are posting prices. They are selling in small blocks. In quantity it is below $10. But if you think what is coming off the board, the microprocessor. Maybe the 851 is cheap but if the 32 bit microprocessor is coming off the board, the peripherals for you interfacing. The pricing is getting close to being affordable depending upon your application. Adding $8 to a toaster may not be competitive. However, the more and more stuff you can do. Let's look at revision, making multiple revisions. We have a TiVo box in my house. All of a sudden TiVo is able to have a new version, download and upgrade itself, firmware update and charge a premium. What's that worth to a company? It's this kind of flexibility that goes beyond pricing. And the pricing we have been talking about, over the last two years $25 to $12 for the same kind of things, Spartan II devices. Maybe less than 1 million gates. But even under 1 million gates you can make a pretty sophisticated system using 8 bit processors. You probably need more than 1 million gates with a 32 bit processor. It's getting there.

Is this new vision for the company come with new management or was it simply a natural evolution?
Nick Martin is our founder. This is his vision from the late 90's. The vision was focused in the FPGA area. If you look at our IPO document, it talks about getting into this area. I think it has been refined but this is the culmination of about 6 years of time. During that period of time we acquired Tasking and used the technology within Altium Designer. We acquired a lot of FPGA technology and did a lot of development on top of that. Of course the PCB was the core technology. The vision is Nick's vision and it has been a long time in coming, 6 or 7 years at this point. Very fortunate it is culminating at good time.

What is the availability of Altium Designer?
It is selling. It's priced at $12,995, relatively inexpensive. It includes everything: full Protel product, Nexar, common front end design.

How long has it been available?
The announcement talks about the renaming. We've been selling a unified combination since a year ago February. In that period of time we made significant enhancements. It came out with only 3 8-bit microprocessors. Since then we have made enhancements on the Nexar and on the Protel side. This has matured with 32 bit support. We use a wishbone bus on the backplane. All plug-ins. We've added support for vendors and in the IP area we've added PowerPC.

How many units have been sold in 18 months?
The majority of sales have been made to PCB guys, Protel guys. I would say it has been selling very well. The reception has been extraordinary. We have not infiltrated the FPGA world. Over this period of time we have learned. We were talking about PCB on a chip, then board on a chip. We have been learning about messaging. We finally feel that we have the correct positioning. This had to with our announcement of Altium Designer. It really was the fact that we can solve entire electronic product design. This is our new position. We are selling it as an electronic product design solution not an FPGA world. You've got Altera and Xilinx out there. They have microprocessors. People are using those products relatively successfully. They have barriers. Devices get changed. The system level simulations become more burdensome. Our interactive approach gets beyond that and gets rid of that because we never have to do simulate the entire system.

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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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