February 23, 2004
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
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The remaining 73% of FPGA designers rely heavily on free tools, and range from people doing hobby projects in their garage, to students working on degree program projects and small start-ups developing prototypes. This type of user simply does not show up in the ASIC space because the cost of entry is too high.
As a result, looking at the FPGA market as a 'whole' and making assumptions like 'FPGA designers expect free tools' is grossly misleading. The small group that spend the lion's share of the money on FPGAs are both willing and able to spend money for tools that can earn their keep. The remaining three-quarters of the FPGA designers skew the results and paint a false picture.
Tools supplied by the FPGA vendors are still widely acknowledged as incomplete and inferior in quality and performance to the top EDA-supplied tools. While the vendor tools may be sufficient for 80% to 90% of users, there is still the potential for a robust market for EDA tools in FPGA. The remaining percentage of FPGA designers is still probably similar in size to the entire ASIC community.
[Meanwhile], as discussed in the article, one big problem faced by EDA vendors is their own distribution channels - I won't repeat the argument here.
FPGA Tools Part II - Chapter 2
David Stewart, CEO at CriticalBlue - “The first important thing to remember is that the complexity of FPGAs has now reached a point where a lot of traditional methods for ASICs or SoCs now need to be applied to FPGAs. Originally, they were pretty much a push-button thing - you ran it through a synthesis tool, through place and route, and you were finished.”
“Now it's a lot more complicated, with hierarchical [design] and floorplanning and timing issues all part of the process. Many companies that used to do complex ASIC designs, and are used to spending reasonable amounts of money on the tools, are now converting exclusively to doing large FPGAs. [It remains to be seen if] they'll bring the same kind of money to those FPGA projects.”
“I think that we're either at, or fast approaching, a discontinuity. We have the simpler FPGA tools, which don't justify more than $10,000 or so. But now, at 10 million gates and beyond - because of the need for floorplanning, implementation, hardware/software levels of design rather than just RTL - companies understand the need for additional sophistication today.”
“Today it's at the top end of the FPGA market where we need to use new approaches. [Meanwhile], there are now embedded processors actually on the ship. So we see a market opportunity to provide hardware co-processor accelerators to co-exist with the main processor on the chip, as well.”
“I think the challenge that large EDA vendors have is in the marketplace, because of the profile of the FPGA users. Generally, their tool budgets are significantly lower than those for ASIC or SoC designs. For the vendors, it's one thing to be able to demonstrate the project value of their tools, and it's something else to be able to recognize that value [through real sales].”
“We're not pursuing FPGA customers right now, although we do support FPGAs in our prototyping. We are looking at attacking the stand-alone FPGA market, but I think we'll have to come up with some sort of business model to get the dollars that we believe are commensurate with [the effort that would require].”
Jeff Garrison, Director of Marketing for FPGA Products at Synplicity, Inc. - “The FPGA vendors basically want to sell silicon. They want to make it as easy as possible for their customers to start a design. They want to provide a complete package with simulation, synthesis, place and route, [as so forth]. They've been doing that for years, and for years we've competed with that. The segment of customers that we serve needs both performance and maximum cost effectiveness from their FPGA tools. The FPGA vendors are only really interested in providing a basic package to their customers.”
“Synthesis and place-and-route have a direct impact [on FPGA vendor revenues], so FPGA vendors are participating there. In that, to a certain extent, they're in competition with the EDA industry, although they haven't really participated in the simulation [market].”
“But, things are changing. Now there's a lot of value in providing the best FPGA synthesis tools. The FPGA vendors know that if you can fit your design into a smaller design, you can provide a huge return to your customers. For customers who use Synplicity tools [to achieve this], they're seeing that the tools pay for themselves quickly. And it's that segment of FPGA customers who are looking for performance, cost effectiveness who are willing to pay for the best tools. As FPGAs get bigger, our value [as a tool provider] becomes even more significant.”
“If you look at the Xilinx website, you'll see that they're saying that their silicon, Synplicity's tools, and their back-end tools provide the best-in-class for projects. Altera also recommends Synplicity's tools and then the Altera back-end tools.”
“Clearly, there really aren't any [third-party] alternatives at the back-end. Place and route for an FPGA is tightly tied to the architecture of the device itself. So the FPGA vendors provide their own back-end tools to their customers. The EDA companies aren't able to, and don't try. Our tool does do some routing and adds some additional performance, but doesn't do place and routing.”
“We feel that the FPGA vendors re-evaluate tool offerings all the time. From their perspective, they want their silicon to look as good as possible. Quality comes from the silicon architecture and the tools used to produce the silicon - specifically synthesis and place-and-route tools. They're constantly evaluating where they stand with respect to their competition in this complete flow.”
“The FPGA vendors do give away their tools for a segment of their customers. But those customers are the ones who aren't worried about performance or cost, the ones doing small mediocre designs. However, [FPGA vendors giving away the tools for free] is the barrier that the big EDA vendors see to entering the market. We see that barrier as well, but we also see that the number of FPGA designs is growing, where the number of ASIC designs is coming down. We know for the newest devices that, frankly, it's hard for FPGA vendors to provide all the tools that their customers need.”
“[Meanwhile], I don't think that the big EDA vendors have their sales channels set up for the FPGA market. They're set up for a small number of large customers, those customers who spend millions of dollars on tools. At Synplicity, we understand the FPGA market - we're set up for a smaller number of sales transactions.”
“If you look at what it take to do 130-nanometer full ASIC designs, you've got to have $150 million revenue on this product to even think of justifying doing a custom ASIC. How many designs are there out there today justifying that kind of volume? The number of ASIC starts is shrinking from [upwards of] 10,000 some years ago, to 2,000 or less today.”
“On the other hand, in the FPGA and structured ASIC segment, those design starts are going up. There are always going to be ASICs for the high-volume, high-performance market segment, but ASIC guys can [think about] re-inventing themselves as FPGA guys. An ASIC designer has always had to deal with VHDL and Verilog, which is the front step to FPGAs, as well. Xilinx and Altera both offer training with regards to their architecture, their IP, and how to design within their environments. Any knowledgeable HDL person can understand the technology.”
“So yes, the FPGA vendors are putting a lot of effort into developing tools, but they're offering a silicon product which is worthless without tools. They see the tools as a critical part of their business, and they want some level of control over the design process.”
and more complex.”
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-- Peggy Aycinena, EDACafe.com Contributing Editor.
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