January 18, 2010
An Oasys Grows in the EDA Landscape
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| by Gabe Moretti - Contributing Editor
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Having been around for over forty years, there is not much happening in EDA that makes me take a very hard look at it. But a sequence of events in the last six months has convinced me that Oasys Design Systems is a company worthy of special attention.
While at DAC last July I ran into Joe Costello. That is surprising in itself, since I, like most everyone else, was under the impression that Joe had left EDA for good. But Joe was there, and he led me to the Oasys booth. It turns out that Joe is on the Board of Directors and is one of the investors in the company. Then Nanette Collins, a highly respected public relations professionals who works with Oasys, asked me to take a more in-depth look. In spite of the fact that I do not agree with everything it was said in my lengthy discussions with the founders, what I learned indicates that Oasys is not only a growing concern, but is one of the dwindling number
of EDA startups that can be successful.
The history of Oasys.
The three founders of Oasys –– Paul van Besouw, president and CEO, Johnson Limqueco, vice president of R&D, and Harm Arts, CTO –– were part of the Ambit RTL synthesis software design team. They joined Cadence when it acquired Ambit and began working to tie synthesis to physical design.
As time went on, they began to understand how hard it is to integrate these two disparate environments together in a way that would produce a cohesive, workable flow. That set in motion a healthy debate about starting the entire process from scratch where RTL code through synthesis could produce placed gates.
Soon after, they left Cadence and started Oasys to pursue their idea. The three got started with the help of several EDA-savvy angel investors who provided seeding funding for the two years it took them to build the product and get the technology working. After 18 months they had a working prototype to show other angel investors and secure a bit more seed funding.
Once again creative individuals needed to leave one of the largest EDA companies in order to develop a breakthrough product. I wonder when, if ever, one of the large EDA companies will find a way to disregard corporate sacred turfs to allow entrepreneurial development to exist within the organization. It seems that corporate establishment feels threatened by any new product that requires a change in strategy, customers management, or reporting structure.
The founders of Oasys asked themselves a simple question: why do we optimize at the backend, and not at the front end of the synthesis flow? It is one of those things that makes me, in turn, ask: "why has no one thought of this before?" It just seems an obvious approach. The job of optimizing a huge netlist after synthesis is a daunting task. But the task could be much easier if the netlist were the result of the synthesis of an optimized RTL design. It was time to ask the second question.
How did the idea of optimizing at the RTL level came about?
The Oasys founders see that current synthesis technology is increasingly inadequate for design teams doing large chips. Run times are too long, managing constraints for hundreds of blocks too cumbersome, and results coming out of synthesis are not meaningful given the big impact of floorplans and physical implementation. As a result, the timing closure problem is increasingly a back-end issue and synthesis is a commodity. Astonishingly, most high-end design teams have all the different synthesis solutions and use the output of whichever delivers the best results after place and route.
Oasys takes an entirely new and innovative approach. Their solution is so different from existing synthesis solutions that they have created a new product category and labeled Chip Synthesis.
"Our goal is to produce the best starting point for physical implementation by producing placed netlists that deliver targeted quality of results after place and route. The product, RealTime Designer puts all the effort of generating a good placed netlist at the register transfer level, making the traditional optimization back end obsolete. These netlists run smoothly through all the popular place and route systems. Most important, design teams are able to converge on their floorplan much earlier than with alternative methods."
Even if one is not exceptionally intelligent, after a few years in EDA one comes to the realization that a good engineering idea and above average development skills are required but not sufficient to make a startup a success. What is needed is an available market of sufficient size to allow the company to first grow to self-sustaining size and then to reach a market presence that will allow either independent existence or a profitable merger or acquisition. I was then curious to hear the company position on this question.
Why start a company to compete in a very competitive and shrinking market?
In spite of what one is told at the Executive presentations organized by EDAC, the industry has little, if any, prospect of growing more than the rate of inflation, even in good years. The reason is consolidation. To fully cover this point, a separate article is needed, or may be even a series of articles. Suffice to say that the number of semiconductor companies is diminishing, and globalization is marginalizing the smaller design houses and forcing them to simply be users of licensed IP.
Oasys sees the synthesis market as a $350M market that is ready for a new disruptive technology. Sanjiv Kaul, Executive Chairman of the company and another original investor told me that: " Several people used to ask me questions about why I am involved with Oasys both as an investor and an active Executive Chairman. Why did you invest in Oasys? Isn’t EDA in trouble? Aren’t EDA startups having a hard time? Even if your technology is good, isn’t it very hard for a startup to build a business in EDA?
All good questions. Investing in EDA can be hazardous to your wallet! The Oasys story is still being written but I thought I would share my insights. Monday morning quarterbacks are always right, but it is the analysts who can read the game while it is being played that are worth listening to. So let me try and put my mouth where my money is.
There is a reason why so few EDA startups are successful. Too many EDA startups are launched with a quick acquisition in mind. Often they are better implementations of key features in an existing design platform. Such start ups typically have a hard time making it. Not only is integrating that product into existing flows hard but typically the large companies focus resources to close the gap especially if the startup is getting traction. There has to be a sustainable advantage that is meaningful to customers for a business to be successful."
Sanjiv went on to cover a few points and his list should be required reading for anyone thinking about starting a company.
Characteristics of a promising company
Sanjiv, and I think the rest of the angel-investors, had several reasons to invest in Oasys:
1. Oasys was trying to address a real customer pain. Traditional synthesis technology was getting increasingly inadequate for design teams doing large chips. The run times were too long, managing constraints for 100s of blocks too cumbersome, and the results coming out of synthesis were not very meaningful given the big impact of floorplans and physical implementation. As a result the timing closure problem was increasingly a back end issue and synthesis was becoming a commodity. Most high end teams have all the different synthesis solutions available to them and use the output of whichever one delivers the best results after P&R.
2. The Oasys solution was going to be a complete platform. That meant it would be possible to build a sustainable advantage over the competition because the product depended on standards to interface into design flows.
3. What the Oasys founders wanted to do was pretty audacious. But that is what it takes to be successful as a startup. In EDA if you don’t have a 10X advantage at least, it is hard to break through the all you can eat, preferred vendor deals that the major EDA vendors like to do with their corporate customers. Customers will not switch in a big way to new technology from a startup unless they see a sustainable lead. If Oasys accomplished what it wanted to do, then Oasys would have a 4-5 year lead over the incumbents. Synopsys was quickly able to close the technical gap with Ambit and so the latter's product disappeared from the market.
4. The Oasys solution is so different from existing synthesis solutions that it is a new product category: Chip Synthesis.
5. The founders felt they could develop the product with a limited investment. That was key, given that EDA had fallen out of favor with Sand Hill Road.
6. There was a large addressable market. If you don’t see a path to a $100M business for a start up then you should not do it in my opinion. It is as hard to build a $10M company as it is to build a $100M company. But your chances of success are much better with the $100M play.
I cannot argue with any of the points, aside for questioning the choice of "Chip Synthesis" to describe the market segment. I am sure that since Logic Synthesis and Physical Synthesis were already taken, the task was demanding. But the Chip is the final result, it is not what is being synthesized. Did anyone propose Design Synthesis?
I was really interested to discover what could possibly convince Joe Costello to re-enter the EDA industry.
How did they get Joe back into EDA?
The Oasys founders began talking to Joe after his keynote at the DAC in San Francisco in 2006 and kept the discussion going until he was convinced it was real. Once that happened, he got involved.
According to Joe Costello: “The RTL-to-GDSII flow is not meeting the needs of design teams doing chips larger than 20M gates. They can get their design done but it is too painful, and we all know that customer pain is a market opportunity!
“The Oasys team had an exciting approach that I was attracted to right away and so I watched them over the years. What was impressive about them was that they were able to not only deliver a breakthrough product but do it under a very difficult environment. I felt compelled to work with them.”
The bottom line is that benchmark results are great, even if they cannot be taken as pure numbers and must be judged according to the nature of the design being benchmarked. And reality in EDA is unlike any other reality in the financial world: here success is relative, and a company with $100 million in yearly revenue is a great success, since there are less than a dozen around.
What are the prospects for a one market segment company?
What the Oasys founders want to do is audacious. The Oasys story is still being written, but the prospects for RealTime Designer are great. Design teams are looking for differentiated platform delivering productivity in multiple dimensions.
"Synopsys started off as a one market segment company. Cadence and Magma were the same. If the one market segment company has a highly differentiated and valuable product then it can build a solid business and go from there." My advice to Oasys is: stay focus, forget Synopsys as a model for now and forever. The market is no longer the same and the segments that have the greatest opportunities for growth may require a significant departure from the one the company serves today. When the time comes, will Oasys be willing to challenge its existing market in order to grow, or will it become just like the rest of the "successful" EDA companies?
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-- Gabe Moretti, EDACafe.com Contributing Editor.