Published on March 04th, 2010

Tool Chain vs. Platforms in Electronic Product Design

To expand into new non-traditional markets, electronic tool vendors must provide cross-discipline design and manufacturing environments

Chip Design magazine sat down with Gerry Gaffney, regional CEO of the Americas and Bob Potock, technical marketing director from Altium. What follows are excerpts of that conversation.

[CD] What’s changed from Altium’s perspective?

Bob Potock[BP] Over 500 new customers have switched to Altium Design in the last year. They are switching to improve productivity. The product is built on a data-centric, "platform" architecture, not a traditional tool-chain flow.

[CD] Let’s dig into the details. Who are these customers?

Gerry Gaffney[GG] They tend to be system-level engineers or product designers who don’t identify themselves as FPGA or printed circuit board (PCB) designers. These product development folks typically have a time-to-market window of 6 months in industries such as industrial, medical, telecom, and military/aerospace.

Altium by Industry

Our entry point is not through the design specialty side of the house - like FPGAs or processors - but through the overall product development side. For example, look at National Semiconductor’s Web-Bench website. National Semi has standardized on Altium’s Designer. The Web-Bench site is a portal where developers can create a number of reference designs bases upon the company’s components and boards.

In terms of location, our customers are located all over the globe, from the U.S. and Europe to Asia. The company has probably the largest usage base in China thanks to the popularity of Protel. [Altium formerly was known as Protel before 2001.] Protel was used at the university-level for PCB design. Today, our biggest challenge in China is piracy, so we’re busy converting unpaid users to paid ones.

[CD] You claim that new customers are switching to seek improved productivity. What does "productivity" mean in this context?

[GG] Most companies no longer talk about the specific design task being the challenge. Instead, they will talk about how it is a very fragmented process in their organization. Most of our customers are companies that have had a mechanical product but now need an electronic component. So their environment, their infrastructure is coming out of a mechanical mindset into product lifecycle management (PLM) - full product design covering all engineering disciplines and life cycle strategies.

Many of our customers are able to create new designs using our tools, going from package install and ordering of PCBs in just a couple of weeks. They are able to do layout based on our libraries in both 2D and 3D, to help with package design. Many have stated a productivity increase in moving from EDA tools like Mentor’s PADS or Cadence’s OrCad.

Our most recent product is another example of productivity improvement. The Nanoboard comes with free intellectual property (IP), an Altera or Xilinx FPGA chip, PCB and Altium’s software for under $400.

[CD] If many of your customers already have a large legacy of mechanical designs, then migration to your product may not be a big deal. But that’s not the case for customers that have a large legacy in electronic design. Do they require extensive translation and data manipulation to get into Altium’s system?

[BP] In general, most companies tend to keep their legacy system on the older tool chain flows. Then they move forward with the new projects using Altium Designer. They won’t try to pull all the designs forward, since it’s such a different system.

[CD] How would a user migrate a legacy Cadence (OrCad) or Mentor (PADS) design into Altium (Designer)? You’d have to translate all that data.

[BP] It would be done through the use of translators, just like they do when they export and import across the tools chains.

Our FPGA, PCB and SW-development projects all set on the same database system. Also, it is extensible. We support standards like ODB++, which is a common manufacturing standard

[CD] How is a data-centric "platform" architecture different from traditional tools chain technology?

[BP] Traditional EDA companies link disparate software packages that they acquired over the years to create their tool chains. On the other hand, Altium has spent many years building and unifying their tool platform. It is a more data-centric approach, where the data management layers are intrinsic to our system - not an afterthought.

Tool chains have been around for 30 years or so. The idea was to acquire the best-in-class tools, then integrate them together to provide more features to the end-user. Today, it is very hard to compete based on features since they are so subjective. Some are important to a particular group but not to another one. Plus, most tools are pretty much the same when you get down to the tool. With Altium Designer we believe that we could do 90% to 95% of designs in the world. It’s only the top fringe we might not be able to address. But the majority of the boards we could do and handle more effectively than with traditional tool chain products.

Tool focus is now hitting the wall, as development is shifting to data and process. That is where the platform architecture comes into play. The lack of focus on data and process will come back to bite the tool chains. A schematic has its own data base. A PCB has its own database. The FPGA design process, manufacturing, thermal analysis, everyone has their own database. It becomes increasingly difficult to actually manage the data in that environment.

Our platform architecture is built on a single, proprietary database, using the concept of hierarchical projects. In this approach the printed circuit board sits at the top of the hierarchy. Within that PCB project a user can have multiple FPGA projects, which in turn can have several embedded processors and associated embedded software development projects. Since all these projects have a hierarchical relationship, they can be easily viewed all over the world. Version control becomes very manageable.

[CD] What lies ahead for the product?

[GG] The next few months will be interesting. We have a lot of data management capability which is laying the foundation for companies to have intelligent devices connected to the cloud. What does that design process look like? How do you make sure that the data and process are optimum across the enterprise? We’ll address those questions in the near future.

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