By Jeff Jussel
Senior Director of Global Technology, Newark/element14
A recent post in John Cooley's DeepChip bemoaning the demise of FPGA-based tool startup GateRocket ends with a familiar refrain: “It doesn’t pay to make EDA tools for FPGA because engineers are too used to getting the tools for free from the FPGA vendors”. Setting aside the fact that some EDA companies do very well selling tools to FPGA designers, using the “FPGA tools are free” excuse in the case of GateRocket misses the lesson to be learned here, and fails to recognize an even bigger opportunity.
As a service to all future entrepreneurs tempted to try their hand in an FPGA tool startup, and on the chance to stir up some interesting conversation for the rest of us, I put forward the follow points of advice for my fellow FPGA aficionados. These points highlight the real issues facing small EDA tool companies.
First point – Know your market. It seems obvious, but you would be surprised how often companies get caught up in cool technology and miscast the end user for the product. Was GateRocket a tool for FPGA designers? The Rocket Drive used FPGA devices to accelerate logic simulation. But the end users for this type of acceleration are typically chip designers that need to speed up large runs. FPGA designs are easily programmed and tested on the actual devices. So the real competition for GateRocket in the FPGA community would not have been free tools. So instead of targeting FPGA designers, GateRocket’s tool was aimed at chip designers. But the market for ASIC design is getting smaller each year and the competition from things such as fast simulators or hardware emulators is fierce. Development prototypes would have the advantage.
Second point – the big opportunity for FPGA growth is in processing. While the chip design market is shrinking, the software content in embedded systems, and the corresponding number of software engineers, continues to grow. Some estimates peg the number of software engineers at more than 10x the number of their hardware counterparts. What all of these software engineers are looking for is faster processing. Where faster processors used to be a given in each new generation, extra speed now comes from parallelization of application processing – something that FPGAs do exceedingly well. The company that finds a way to help software engineers tap into FPGA devices as processors will have access to a huge and hungry market.
The lesson from GateRocket is that new and innovative technology is not enough. A tool startup needs to find ways to apply that technology to the large, emerging market and stay focused there. In the case of FPGA design, that emerging market is in software acceleration. There are already big segments of the high-performance computing market using FPGA processing in areas such as financial analysis, energy exploration and life sciences. As more software developers become aware of the processing advantages for FPGA, the embedded market will also start to demand FPGA tools that can support them. When that happens there will be a big market for FPGA design tools and the FPGA vendors will welcome and support the company that provides the technology to open that door.