Over the holiday break, I came across an interview of Altium CIO Alan Perkins that caught my eye. Sramana Mitra has been focusing on interesting cloud-based businesses and this interview focused on how this EDA company was planning to move into the cloud. I wasn’t able to talk to Alan Perkins directly, but I was able to find out more through their folks in the US (the company is based in Australia). It was interesting enough to warrant a post.
I knew very little about Altium before seeing this interview and maybe you don’t either, so here is a little background. Based in Australia, Altium is a small (~$50M) EDA company focused primarily in the design of printed circuit boards with FPGAs and embedded software. They formed from a company called Protel about 10 years ago and most recently gained attention when they acquired Morfik, a company that offers an IDE for developing web apps (more on that later). According to some data I saw and from what they told me, they added 1700 new customers (companies, not seats) in 2010 just in the US! So, they may be they best kept secret in a long while. (Ironically, the next day at work after I spoke to Altium, I spoke to someone at another company that was using Altium to design a PC board for us).
According to Altium, their big differentiator is that they have a database-centric offering as compared to tool-flow centric offerings like Cadence OrCAD and Allegro and Mentor’s Board Station and Expedition and related tools. I’m not an EDA developer, so I won’t pretend to understand the nuances of one versus the other. However, when I think of a “database-centric”, I think of “frameworks”. I know it’s been almost 20 years since those days, and things have changed, so maybe database-centric makes a lot of sense now. OpenAccess is certainly a good thing for the industry, but that is because it’s an “open standard” while Altium’s database is not. Anyway, enough on this matter because, as I said, I’m not an EDA developer and don’t want to get in too deep here.
A few years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled “Is IP a 4-Letter Word?”. The main thrust of that post was that IP quality is rather poor in general and there needs to be some sort of centralized authority to grade IP quality and to certify its use. So, when Altium told me they plan to enable a marketplace for design IP by creating ”design vaults” in the cloud, my first question was “who is going to make sure this IP is any good”? Is this going to be the iPhone app model, where Apple vets and approves every app? Or is it going to be the Android model, caveat emptor.
To Altium’s credit, they have similar concerns, which is why they are planning to move slowly. With their introduction of Altium Designer 10, Altium will first provide it’s own vetted IP in the cloud. In the past, this IP was distributed to the tool users on their site, but having it in the cloud will make it easier to distribute (pull, insted of push) and also allow for asynchronous release and updates. The tools will automatically detect if you are using an IP that has been revved, and ask you if you want to download the new version.
Once they have this model understood, Altium then plans to open the model up to 3rd party IP which can be offered for free, or licensed, or maybe even traded for credits (like Linden dollars in Second Life). It’s an interesting idea which requires some pretty significant shifts in personal and corporate cultures. I think that sharing of small “jelly bean” type IP is acheivable because none of it is very differentiated. But once you get to IP that required some significant time to design, why share it unless IP is your primary business. The semiconductor industry is still fiercely competitive and I think that will be a significant barrier. Not to mention that it takes something like 4x-5x as much effort to create an IP that is easily reusable as compared to creating it just to be used once.
Being a tool for the design of FPGAs is an advantage for Altium, since the cost of repairing an FPGA bug is so much less than an SoC or ASIC. For FPGAs, the rewards may be greater than the risks, especially for companies that are doing ASICs for the first time. And this is the market that Altium is aiming for … the thousands of sompanies that will have to design their products to work on the internet-of-things. Companies that design toasters that have never had any digital electronics and now have to throw something together. They will be the ones that will want to reuse these designs because they don’t have the ability to design them in-house.
Which brings us to Morfik, that company that Altium acquired that does IDEs for web apps. It’s those same companies that are designing internet enabled toasters that will also need to design a web app for their customers to access the toaster. So if Altium sells the web app and the IP that let’s the toaster talk to the web app, then Altium provides a significant value to the toaster company. That’s the plan.
Still, the cloud aspect is what interests me the most. Even if designers are reluctant to enter this market, the idea of having this type of central repository is best enabled by the cloud. The cloud can enable collaboration and sharing much better than any hosted environment. And it can scale as large and as quickly as needed. It allows a safe sort of DMZ where IP can be evaluated by a customer while still protecting the IP from theft.
This is not by any means a new idea either. OpenCores has been around for more than a decade offering a repository for designers to share and access free IP. I spoke with them a few years ago and at the time the site was used mainly by universities and smaller companies, but their OpenRISC processor has seen some good usage, so it’s a model that can work.
I’m anxious to see what happens over time with this concept. Eventually, I think this sort of sharing will have to happen and it will be interesting to see how this evolves.
harry the ASIC guy