LONDON EDA company Altium Ltd. has carved out its own niche in the design tool community by integrating its software with in-house developed hardware platforms that are based on a variety of field programmable gate arrays. But this integrated approach could just be a transitional phase according to Altium founder and CEO, Nick Martin.
Founded in 1985 as Protel, the Australia-headquartered company established a niche in low-cost PCB design software sector but made its big move after an initial public offering of shares in 1999 provided funds to make company and technology acquisitions. This enabled the company to enter the FPGA design and synthesis market in 2000, and the embedded software development market in 2001.
As a natural result the renamed company shifted its focus to system design based around FPGAs.“We realized the platforms that were out there had conceptual configurability but they did not have the physical configurability,” said Martin pictured right). “If you bought a FPGA development board it had a standard set of peripherals that were all hard wired. To me this was really missing the point, as you want to be able to plug a device in and then replace it and have the software change to fit the design together.”
During the first half of the decade the company released a plethora of products around this idea, eventually combining many of these into the Altium Designer software in 2005 and the Nexar vendor-independent system for developing complete processor-based digital systems on FPGAs. This has evolved into the NanoBoard plug-in hardware offering, which now provides support for devices from Xilinx, Altera, Actel and Lattice.
The advantage of “soft design,” according to Martin, is that you can not only configure the system in software but you can also compare the performance of different devices and do a trade-off of power and performance. “All the IP we supply to do system-based design is pre-synthesized for the different families of FPGAs. Within our system all the IP and software code can be moved between different devices,” added Martin.However, Martin said that Altium’s long-term focus has to be mainly on software. “We produced the hardware system as it didn’t really exist but long-term we don’t really see it as a business we want to be in; we see it as more of an interim step to prove the concept. We really want to be focused on software.
“Ultimately we see there would be value in a system where companies like Altera or Xilinx supply a version of their new chip on a daughter board so that everyone could use our system to evaluate the device. This could also be extended to third-party silicon vendors supplying peripheral devices that could be plugged in to a system.”
“The challenge for us is to create an ecosystem to attract other people to produce hardware to work with Altium Designer. We are really at the point now where people are looking to produce hardware that can plug in. People can make their own NanoBoards, the only thing we do want is that it is compatible with Altium Designer.”
Device coverage is also important to Martin. “We want to get to the stage where when a new device comes out we can support it immediately. The completeness of the coverage is a really important thing for us and we are not there yet, there are still some FPGAs we have not added to our system.”
The latest incarnation of the software/hardware combination came earlier this year with the introduction of the Innovation Station which integrates the Altium Designer electronics development tool with the NanoBoard range of reconfigurable hardware development and deployment platforms to create the design environment.
“It’s about designing your products in an environment where you are free to keep your focus on the high-level design, while the environment manages the low-level detail for you,” said Martin.
The integration of FPGAs and processors in systems is also an area on ongoing interest at Altium. “At present if you buy our system off the shelf it is very soft core focused but the next stage will be introduce discrete processors in to the mix and that will be very heavily ARM focused. I think ARM is the new 8051,” said Martin.
Martin’s longer-term interests include the wider adoption of FPGA technology. “I think the really interesting thing is that as the patents on FPGA technology start to expire we will see the FPGA fabric start to appear in discrete processors,” he said. “That is still a few years away but I think it is an inevitable process and will produce a single piece of silicon.”n
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