Less Can Mean More

Paul Double explains how smaller players could gain market share against the leaders in mixed-signal EDA tools.

The 1990's witnessed the consolidation of the EDA industry with many smaller companies being bought by larger ones and a few market leaders emerging with massive market share and profits to match.

Now the situation is very different and the EDA market is undergoing fundamental change driven by three main factors: a more critical appraisal of their needs by EDA buyers, the divergence of analogue and digital designs, and the emergence of budget-constrained chip design start-up companies.

Before the downturn, with money plentiful, technical directors often took the obvious route when looking for EDA tools for analogue and mixed-signal design — going to one of the two or three biggest names in the industry and buying their tools, often to work with digital tools from the same vendors that were already installed. Not surprisingly, the big players went along with this very happily, promulgating the myth that a totally integrated analogue/digital design flow with tools from a single vendor is always the most cost-effective design solution.

The recession has made tool buyers take a closer look at the economics and low-cost PC-based tools for analogue and mixed-signal design have never been in greater demand because of there economic advantages

The second factor driving demand for separate analogue and mixed-signal tools is that the SoC goal of many ASIC designers is becoming less popular as chip geometries shrink. This is because digital designs scale relatively easily but analogue circuit elements do not. The biggest problem lies in the way that the supply voltage has reduced together with transistor size. With voltages now moving towards 1V and below, it is becoming much more difficult to design reliable analogue circuits.

Whereas Moore's Law scaling almost always benefits digital logic in terms of density, the techniques needed to build stable analogue circuits for ultra-low supply voltages often means that the analogue section can increase in size for a smaller-geometry process compared with a circuit designed for an older process with greater voltage headroom. As a result, there is a tendency towards using separate digital and analogue chips for a particular design solution and so the desire for an integrated digital/analogue design flow becomes less significant. Analogue designers look for the easiest to use and most cost-effective analogue tools.

Finally, the emergence of many start-up companies aiming to develop analogue and mixed signal designs but with limited budgets is driving demand for low-cost tools that can be installed and used easily, ease-of-use and design productivity being essential in achieving short time-to-market for new devices.

To summarise, the overall EDA market may now be recovering slowly, but it is the fast-growing market share of more specialised tool vendors, rather than ever-increasing dominance by the bigger players that characterises how the market is changing.

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