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Mentor Graphics has rolled out a new physical synthesis tool for the FPGA market, setting the stage for a showdown between low-cost FPGA tools produced by FPGA vendors and those made by EDA companies.

With ASIC starts on the wane due to the higher cost of producing advanced chips and FPGA designs on the rise, EDA vendors are addressing their programmable device offerings. Mentor Graphics has its own FPGA group with an indirect sales force.

Cadence Design Systems, meanwhile, has invested in Hier Designs, an FPGA tools startup, and Synopsys has made numerous attempts to get into the market directly. So far, the bulk of the software going out the door with FPGAs still comes from the FPGA vendors themselves.

But as this market garners increasing attention from serious developers, this could change.

“It’s not our objective to deliver the ultimate tools,” says Tim Southgate, VP of software and tools marketing at Altera. “But we are seeing a tendency to use ASIC tools for FPGA development. Many of the tools will work as they are, although formal verification does require additional work.”

Southgate noted that developers will pay for what they perceive as value, either through better design performance or an easier way to get to the same performance level. That enhanced performance will likely come from the EDA world rather than FPGA companies.

Mentor Graphics’ new Precision Physical Synthesis is a step in that direction. The emphasis is on faster timing closure and reducing interconnect delay for FPGA developers. But the real selling point, say company executives, is that it can be used on both Altera (distributed by Braemac ) and Xilinx (Insight Electronics ) platforms without additional learning, while those vendors’ tools work only on their own platforms.

How much of an attraction that becomes for developers remains to be seen. Mentor Graphics’ price tag starts at US$35,000 ($48,300). Most tools sold by FPGA vendors are a fraction of that price, although an apples-to-apples comparison is difficult to draw because of the different licensing schemes each vendor uses.

Meanwhile, Australian EDA vendor Altium has entered the fray with its Nexar product. (See Electronics News 4 Dec 03 page 26.) Nexar builds on the foundation of the company’s “board-on-chip” foundation—itself derived from the Protel PCB design software approach—to enable non-expert silicon designers to extract maximum performance from FPGAs such as Xilinx’s Spartan and Altera’s Cyclone devices. (See Electronics News 3 Jul 03 page 18). The company explains that Nexar takes proven board-level system design and retargets it for FPGA layout.

“Current methodologies focus on the FPGA as a component in a system,” explains Rob Irwin, Altium’s brand strategy manager. “But the FPGA has outgrown this.”

“FPGAs are now a viable system platform for entire embedded system. Nexar allows non-expert chip designers to approach the design from a ‘system-on-chip’ perspective.”

According to Irwin, FPGA vendors only have FPGA technology and are not well-placed to offer the whole system. In addition they “only offer proprietary IP cores”. Irwin concedes that Mentor has all the design technologies, “but offers a fundamentally different approach – [Mentor’s] focus is on register level design”.

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