A FPGA company makes revenue with the hardware: it sells its device, and gives away its design tools –synthesis, place-and-route. Yet the EDA industry has had success with its own (non-free) FPGA synthesis solutions. For good reasons: in its days, Synplicity’s Synplify was the best FPGA synthesis out there. Synopsys acquired Synplicity two years ago, but it was more to get a comprehensive emulation solution than pushing FPGA synthesis. Mentor Graphics is still invested in FPGA synthesis with Precision, and competes head to head with Xilinx’ XST and Altera’s Quartus.
In a world where FPGA software design is expected to be free (or very cheap, compared to it ASIC counterpart), is there still a market for EDA companies to sell their FPGA solutions? Synplicity stopped growing after it built its success on FPGA synthesis. Is that the fate of EDA for FPGA?
There are several forces at play here: device complexity, software complexity, and know-how.
The complexity of FPGA starts to rival that of ASIC’s. The largest FPGA devices contain 100,000’s of LUTs and registers, 1000’s of DSP components, and are equivalent to 1+ million gate designs. The increasing device size requires faster synthesis and larger capacity. It also strains verification because simulation costs are augmenting accordingly. The days were a designer could complete her FPGA project with a simple write-RTL/synthesize/simulate/fix iterative flow are gone.
FPGA companies differentiate with their devices’ speed, capacity, and power consumption. But beyond the raw hardware features, software to design FPGA has become a key for success. Altera learnt the lesson the hard way 10 years ago when it released software that was not ready: Altera quickly lost its top customers to Xilinx, while it could have become the undisputed #1 FPGA vendor. Some FPGA startups in the past could not get off the ground because they fail to deliver good synthesis for their device. Closer to us, we have heard about Tabula’s chronic problems to bring up its synthesis before it finally announced its device earlier this year. And Abound Logic’s huge netlist has stretched the capacity of today’s FPGA synthesis.
Altera has now a software powerhouse, and is meticulous about its software design and testing. Xilinx is currently going through a major overhaul of its software to catch up with its main competitor. There is no question that software is taken very seriously by the two vendors –they both have a couple hundreds engineers dedicated to provide customers with a full design tool suite.
So does EDA has any future in FPGA synthesis? There will always be FPGA startups looking for an OEM with Synopsys and Mentor, but this is not enough. The EDA industry must showcase a comprehensive FPGA development environment that will cover design, synthesis, and verification:
- Verification is becoming ever more costly for FPGAs, as it already is for ASICs. Formal verification for FPGA is still embryonic –FPGA synthesis uses retiming and FSM re-encoding that makes formal verification quite difficult.
- Synthesis of complex systems with a large IP spectrum is an area of expertise that EDA must leverage. Also EDA could provide a much-needed improvement in power management.
- As for design, EDA must seize on the FPGA community’s ability to adopt new methodologies much faster than the ASIC community. ESL, SystemC, and C/C++ as hardware description languages are the right direction.
If EDA wants to compete with the few hundred software engineers of Xilinx and Altera, it needs to deliver a best-in-class and innovative FPGA design environment. Else it will end up as a no-growth by-product of ASIC synthesis.