“Blue Ocean Strategy” + OVP (Open Virtual Platform)


Last October I wrote an article entitled “ Can a Firm Prosper or Even Survive, If It Gives Away Its Product? about Ciranova. Recently I found another company, namely Imperas, that just gave away its technology. I was tempted to chalk it up to naiveté but Imperas CEO Simon Davidmann is a successful serial entrepreneur involved with 8 successful EDA startups. He is a believer in “Blue Ocean Strategy” which calls for going after new markets rather than fighting for market share in existing markets. I had an opportunity to interview Simon at DAC.

Would you give us a brief biography?
I have a checkered history in that I have been sort of in and out of EDA several times. I was a researcher in the UK in simulation. I got lured away from research to build something which became known as HILO which was a logic simulator back in the early 80s. It was really the first logic simulator that could handle timing and behavioral modeling. We got acquired by Genrad. They used it for board testing. One of the guys who worked on that was Phil Morbi. Our first customer was in the states. This evolved and turned into Verilog. Phil went and built Verilog. I went off into the music business and built embedded systems for musical instruments, electronic percussion instruments.

I had been in universities (Essex and Brunel) and done simulation research in EDA. I thought that I would like to build things, something practical. I played guitar and got to know guys who played drums. We built this electronic percussion company. It became pretty famous and made several million pounds a year. About $10 million at the peak but in the end it went bust. We spent money on airplanes and racing cars. We had those kinds of things. We had a good time and worked very hard. When I look back at it we had some wild technology. The last product I built had five processors in it. It had a graphics controller and CRT. This was the mid-eighties. It was just like a Macintosh. It had all this DSP audio stuff, a complete synthesizer, an audio recorder, sampler and tracker. It was a drum kit. These guys just hit it with sticks. It was a very interesting experience. I went to a lot of good gigs with a load of world class musicians. We had a lot of fun. But sadly the Japanese came and built better porducts, no not better but cheaper products that were easier to use and more reliable. We could not compete. The English engineering just could not do it. We did not have the scale to do it better.

So I went back into EDA and became the first European employee for Gateway (Design Automation) with Verilog. Gateway was in Boston. I spent a lot of time going to Boston. In the end Cadence acquired it. I went and lived in Boston for six months. I just had my first child. I actually lived there early on with Gateway, again a simulation company with Verilog. Then I left Cadence and joined a small Silicon Valley company (Chronoligic’s Simulation, Inc) as the seventh employee and built something called VCS which was next generation Verilog, another simulator that ran 10x faster. I set them up in Europe and moved into sales. At Gateway I was in technical development. At Cadence I was in applications. I moved into sales and did local marketing in Europe because Europe was very much VHDL. We were trying to sell Verilog with VCS. Ultimately we were very successful and were acquired by Viewlogic and ended up at Synopsys.

I started my own silicon IP company called Virtual Chips. It ended up being acquired by Phoenix (Technology Ltd.), a bios company, so a bit out of simulation. I thought verified blocks would be a good way to save simulation. It got acquired. Then I went to Ambit (Design Systems, Inc.) and built digital synthesis technology. Cadence acquired that ($280 million).

Then I set up my own company, Co-Design Automation. We ended up building something called SUPER which became known as SystemVerilog. We got to 27 people and were acquired by Synopsys, a second time around.

We were acquired twice by Synopsys and twice by Cadence. Quite interesting! I stayed there a while. Then basically I decided not to do anything for a while. Luckily, I didn’t have to go to work. I spent a bit of time with my family.

I got intrigued by the idea of multicore. I talked to people. I said “What is the problem? Is it down in the analog stuff or this or that; someone trying to do behavioral synthesis?” What I thffought of these challenges was that everything is going to be software. Multicore makes it a real challenge. I started having ideas. I was an advisor to a venture capital company. In the end they talked me into writing a business plan proposal. They funded it and we put together the company Imperas. It has been going for several years now. Last year we had a change in focus. We moved to open source footing for some of the technology. That is what I’ve come to DAC to talk about. What we call our open virtual platform. This is the elevator pitch (see slide). I like to carry it around.

Let me try to explain about OVP (Open Virtual Platforms) and then what we did recently with Tensilica.

I recall reading where Imperas (pronounced 'imp-ear-as') donated something to OVP.
What happened at Imperas was that at the end of last year we started rethinking what we were doing. What we saw was what I call four steps to epiphany, nirvana for IP.

If I look back at the EDA industry history, especially RTL design, it went through similar sorts of things. The first thing, it moved from doing it by hand to simulation. The first phase of adoption was to get more efficient by moving to a simulation platform, to a simulation methodology for digital chip design. That has been absolutely done for 15 years. I was involved in the early phase of that. We see that from a software development point of view, it has got to be a move to virtual platforms, especially for multicore because if you are trying to build something with 8 cores on it is really hard to see with software what is going on. If you wait until you get a chip, you are six months or a year behind where you want to be and when you get the chip, you probably can’t control it properly. You can’t start and stop things, get visibility; all those things. The first thing people have to move to is the understanding that you need simulation. When they realize that, it does not take them long to realize that their existing analysis and debugging tools are not good enough. If you are writing software running on four processors, you don’t want four windows with GDB interacting with it trying to debug it. There needs to be a better solution there. Once you have something there, you have so much data and files. If you have four different processors, you need some sort of workbench to look after all the processors and manage the methodology of that. Where we see the ultimate vision going is that there is a sort of fourth phase where we program in a better way for concurrency. This is all about multicore and that is what we are concerned with. So we see that in four steps. The conclusion we came to was that it would be a long time before there were markets to which you could sell products. We demonstrated some technology in this programming space at DAC two years ago. We had 30 or 40 analysts under non-disclosure for demos; lots of people from large and small companies and from academia were very interested. Almost every one of them said “This is good and we can see the need for it in the future but the problem we have is getting our exsiting stuff on these new platforms with two or four processors. We are not going to rewrite everything yet. We know we want correct by construction in the future but today we just have to get everything up and running. So what we need is better things in the verification and debug area.” They virtually brought us down to earth. Rather than these great ideas we had for a better universe in programming, they said that they now had more immediate problems to solve. So we began thinking “How are we going to do this?” We have all of this technology in simulation. That was our most advanced technology. We were building quite a lot of stuff in verification and debug areas. The conclusion we came to was that the industry needed something better than lots of proprietary solutions. There already were lots of companies out there: VAST, CoWare, Versatech, Virtuoso. There were a lot of people out there building virtual platforms because the need is there. But they are very proprietary and most of them have 10 year old technology. They have been around for a while. If we want an ecosystem to come which will build multicore software development environments, it needs to have a standard base to build upon. That’s the problem we saw. We thought we could make money here by selling to a few companies. We would be a startup growing quite slowly, competing with these established players with a good technology. We came to the conclusion that that was not the right business model for us. I have been involved in 8 startups. They have all been successfully acquired. The last thing I want to do is spend 5 years in a company making small progress. It will either be widely successful or fail quickly. I do not want the limbo of 10 years in my company making a poor salary. I am just not interested in that. I want tremendous excitement and a fire fight; swish. That’s how I am. I like hard work. I like change and I like progress.

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