Where the Rubber Meets the Road

Saloni Howard-Sarin, Director of Tools Marketing at Actel Corp. - “Our front-end design flow depends on contributions from a number of vendors, while the back-end flow continues to be made up from our own tools for physical design, and verification and logic analysis. At Actel, our strategy is to provide our customers with the best tools. Unlike our competition, what we do is look at the existing [third-party] vendors, and see if we can leverage their tools [on behalf of our customers].”

“[It's true], FPGA vendors don't like paying high prices for EDA tools. However, the only area where we like to use our own tools, which is the case for most FPGA vendors, is in the back-end, in place and route where it requires a deep, clear understanding of the architecture. In any other part of the flow, we can't compete with companies like Magma, Synplicity, Mentor, or SynaptiCAD.”

“We've never actually had a complete toolset that we developed and supported in-house. In the simulation case, we've always used Mentor's ModelSim from the beginning. In synthesis, we did at one point have an offering that was our own - but eventually decided to go with others.”

“As the FPGA market has changed, as the devices have gotten bigger and bigger - Actel's devices are now at 2-million gates - a whole different set of problems have [emerged]. You have to look within the product lines of the third-party tool vendors and ask, 'Who has reasonable offerings and do those products offer what our customers need?' Then, you have to OEM the tools [you select].”

“We do two or three major product releases a year. With each release, we include the latest releases of the tool technology, as well. We're constantly re-evaluating. We say to the vendors that we need this or that tool - or that we need an entirely new methodology - as we try to figure out what our customers need.”

“We want to provide a one-stop shopping [experience] for our customers. Our Libero environment is a wrapper around the other tools, a dashboard with a flow that walks you through every phase of your design. It runs about $2,500. If you add in physical synthesis, it's about $3,500. We like to say that we're offering ASIC-level tools at FPGA prices.”

“Currently, the FPGA vendors are the channel for the third-party EDA vendors in the FPGA space. FPGA companies run the gamut today - from huge to small mom-and-pop shops. So ease of use is very important, and much more an emphasis for the tools than in the ASIC industry.”

“Today, ASICs have the tools and the methodology to address a huge number of gates. But as FPGAs grow, those technologies are going to have to come into the FPGA space, as well. Verification is very important for ASICs, but FPGAs have repgrogrammability. FPGA customers are more used to the luxury of knowing if it doesn't work, it can be reprogrammed. Some people see that as a weakness in the technology. We choose to see that as a strength.”

“If I was in an EDA vendor's shoes, I wouldn't be wildly enthusiastic about the FPGA space either. But if you look at the economics of ASICs versus FPGAs, the FPGAs are [very attractive]. Outside the United States, FPGAs are on an even steeper ramp [than they are in North America]. China and Japan are getting into FPGAs faster than anywhere else in the world and we're seeing tremendous growth there.”

“But changing the business model is never easy. The big EDA vendors are used to calling on just one or two large accounts. They've got to change their sales forces and their philosophy. Meanwhile, the prices for FPGA tools are so much lower, it's really difficult for them. But the FPGA industry is hungry for tools and for models that will make the tools work. Whether it's through the FPGA vendors, or through the EDA vendors, there's an extraordinary opportunity there for anyone who sells good tools.”

Chris Balough, Director of Software and Tools Marketing, and Jim Smith, Director of EDA Vendor Relationships at Altera Corp. -

Balough: “Altera is in the time-to-market business. The whole idea of reconfigurable, reprogrammable devices is what people come to FPGAs for. We offer time-to-market power and service those customers who want the best results. Altera can provide outstanding results no matter what tools a customer uses.”

“However, that we can also offer the option of a total flow to the customer who is starting from scratch with FPGAs. The key aspect here is the relationships between our core architecture and the tools. It's artificial to try to separate those two things, because it's truly an integrated technology.”

“Our focus will always be on both synthesis, specifically, and place and route - it will never end. They are both vital for integrating our FPGA architecture. We are currently making announcements that offer the first revolutionary change in the logic fabric and structure in 5 years. These developments are only possible because we can model and test a variety of different architectures, which in turn is only possible if we have excellent tools in-house.”

“In an FPGA company, the FPGA fabric is highly influenced by the software engineering organization. The ability to design in logic in a cost effective manner means that the tools play a very vital role here.”

“As far as our structured ASIC products are concerned - these tools offer an outstanding and unique value proposition. We're the only ones who offer an FPGA with an equivalent structured ASIC. You can target your design for an FPGA, get the design out into the field, debug it in the field, and once it's proven and working, you can use a wizard to implement the design in a structured ASIC. We believe structured ASICs exist - we've got real customers there. One reason that we're seeing such a huge interest our structured ASICs is, there's nowhere else you can go to get an FPGA and then have the ability to put it into a structured ASIC. It's a low-risk proposition.”

Smith: “We put our focus and R&D focus on those things that are specific to our architecture, specifically in the place-and-route area. We also work closely with third parties to address the front-end aspects of design. So you can see, from RTL on down is where we put the focus of our tools. Above and around RTL, we work with third parties.”

“We don't see any change in that going forward. The fitter is unique to our device architecture. It's critical to have a very good understanding of the architecture to get the best optimization possible with fitter, so naturally that technology will stay with us. Synthesis, however, plays a role between the architecture and the customer's design and place and route. So, a complete synergy needs to be there. We are working very closely with third party synthesis vendors to enable them to be able to provide the best solutions possible as we role out each one of our new architectures. We're willing to work with anyone, in fact, who can provide value to our customers.”

“With regards to the issue of system-level design, we're interested in developing implementations there and will work with third-party vendors t solve those system-level issue.”

“[Meanwhile], on the verification side, the devices are getting more complex and the number of gates, memories, I/Os are increasing. In all of those aspects, we work with all of the big EDA vendors. We're also looking increasingly at the smaller players in EDA. We've got over 14,000 customers - we touch almost every FPGA designer out there - so it's important that we touch every tool that our customers use.”

Steve Lass, Director of Software Product Marketing at Xilinx, Inc. - “Our decisions depend on how good the third-party tools are. But, due to competition, we have to sell our tools fairly inexpensively. We basically have a front to back-end shrink-wrapped solution, as does our main competitor - there's a certain amount of competition in providing the tools. Our foundation tools runs about $2,500 for a time-based license that comes with support.”

“Why would anybody need to look any farther than our tools? Well, we're doing the tools for inside the FPGA. Our main decision-making criteria are the quality of results and the performance of our FPGAs. Clearly we want to have control over that. Something like a schematic editor, or a board tool, or a signal integrity tool for verification would not impact the quality of results with respect to using our products, because our quality of results mainly depends on clock speed.”

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