Can SaaS Really Make Chip Design Easier?

The question is being tested by chip engineers as they weigh whether it’s essential to own your own tools; Web becomes place to try out IP blocks.

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By Cheryl Ajluni

Software as a Service (SaaS) is not a technology. It is a software deployment business model where an application is hosted as a service that is provided to customers across the Internet. Thanks to success stories from companies like Google, Salesforce.com, WebEx, and TurboTax, among others, this business model has become quite popular and is now even being looked at by some EDA vendors and system-level design engineers.

The central question is this: Can the SaaS business model ease the burden of chip design—especially for those designers at small to medium-sized companies faced with constrained budgets and resources? Let’s take a closer look.

Why SaaS, Why Now?

To better gauge the viability of the SaaS model for Web-based delivery of system-level design tools it is important to first understand why the model has been such a success. Why would customers prefer to use an application hosted as a service on someone else’s server, rather than use an application running on their own premise? The answer to that question is fairly straightforward and stems from the five key benefits often associated with SaaS, including:

  • Low cost — Customers “pay as they go” for software and only for as much as they need.

  • No required infrastructure — Because the customers’ information is stored in a central location hosted on the SaaS vendor’s server, no infrastructure is required at the customer premise. This reduces the up-front and ongoing expense of software deployment and alleviates the burden of ongoing operation, maintenance and support.

  • Scalability — With its “pay-as-you-go” model, SaaS offers a scalable environment in which software applications can grow with the customer.

  • Low investment risk — Because the applications are paid for as the customer uses them, financial risk is reduced. When the customer no longer needs the service they simply stop paying.

  • Easy collaboration — Since Web-based applications allow customers to save their information on the Internet, it can be easily accessed anytime, anywhere—greatly easing collaboration between geographically disperse team members and increasing productivity.

While the benefits of SaaS are compelling, they would mean little to the design community were it not for a few relevant factors. To begin with, the Internet and security technologies (e.g., broadband access) necessary for making SaaS successful are now readily available. In addition, a changing market is driving designers to look at the design process in a new way. The current state of the economy, for example, is forcing many companies to reduce spending. Instead of buying “best-in-class” tools, some are opting to buy solutions that work “good enough.” Globalization of the design team is another way in which the market is changing. Design teams are today comprised of geographically dispersed members, making collaboration between team members a dicey proposition.

The cost savings and productivity benefits offered by the SaaS model now offer a viable means of addressing these challenges; especially for small to mid-sized design houses. Unlike large design companies with their well-established infrastructure and fully amortized system-level design tool purchases, smaller companies tend to have minimal infrastructure in place and are therefore more open to benefits of the SaaS model. Larger companies may also see its value, but typically not unless the situation warrants a re-examination of their existing infrastructure (e.g., when opening a new office or moving to a new geographic location).

SaaS In Action

Despite the challenges facing the design community and the benefits that SaaS offers, many wonder if the design community is really ready and willing to accept this model. One company that believes the answer is yes is Cadence Design Systems, which launched the Hosted Design Solutions) for just that reason (see Figure 1). As the first SaaS solution for semiconductor design, Hosted Design Solutions provides designers with IT infrastructure and design compute, storage and secure networking capabilities, as well as access to the design capability, including the software encapsulated in packaged design environments. Leveraging the SaaS delivery model, the Cadence offering delivers location-independent support, access to worldwide Cadence expertise and a secure collaboration infrastructure.

Figure 1. Cadence Hosted Design Solutions came about as a natural evolution to its advanced collaboration infrastructure—a solution deployed more than seven years ago to help its services clients leverage Cadence expertise and decrease risk on their production designs. Hosted Design Solutions combines this service with the SaaS infrastructure.

Cadence’s Hosted Design Solutions is not the only foray into Web-based services for the design community. Virage Logic also is making good use of the Internet by allowing customers to evaluate its Intellectual Property (IP) online and by providing them access to the Integrator Online product. Integrator Online provides customers with all the information they need to understand, for example, what types of memories will be required to achieve a specific system performance or area, all before any memory has even been purchased.

Synopsys also offers Web-based functionality to its customers to ease collaboration among geographically-dispersed team members. Its transaction-level models, for example, are available in Internet-accessible libraries. Customers simply purchase tokens, which can be used to check out specific models as needed. Additionally, the company’s combination of virtualization and hardware prototyping tools provide customers with remote access (see Figure 2). A virtual platform executes embedded software on the virtualized target’s embedded hardware as a fully functional model on the developer’s workstation 9 to 12 months before silicon is available. Once RTL becomes available and is stable, the virtual model is connected using transaction-level interfaces with a hardware prototype. Since the connection can be made using networks, the software developer need not be in the lab where the hardware prototype resides. The developer can also attach devices like USB memory sticks to the virtual platform, which can be remotely accessed by the target hardware prototypes behind the network.

Figure 2. This graphic illustrates how the combination of Synopsys’ virtualization and hardware prototyping solutions enable remote access.

The Other Side of The Story

While there is no denying the cost and productivity benefits of SaaS-based applications, there remains no firm agreement in the EDA community on the value of using this model to deliver sophisticated design flows. According to Mentor Graphics, one reason for this is that despite a changing design market a fundamental issue remains: Is design a core competency? As a company spokesman put it: “If design is a company’s core competency (whether large or small), they want to control the design environment. Customers who care about design care a lot about the tools they use. If design is not a core competency, then why design at all? Instead designers could simply take off-the-shelf components and add their value at the application level.”

Another challenge for SaaS in system-level design may be convincing system houses to give up control of their information. This challenge may prove formidable as some years ago vendors tried unsuccessfully to offer design tools over the Web. One reason for this failure was that designers simply did not want to give up control of their design information by storing it on a server that might be susceptible to security breaches.

Cadence agrees that security remains a key issue these days, but it also points out that security solutions have improved dramatically over the years. For that reason, its Hosted Design Solutions is a Class 3, ultra-reliable and redundant solution. In some cases, that level of security is higher than what some of its customers have in house. Cadence also adds that when customers are looking to reduce risk and cost, outsourcing the elements of the design environment that are non-differentiating but critical is a key place to start.

The Final Word

The SaaS model, bolstered by offerings like the Cadence Hosted Design Solutions, is now making its move on chip design. With the technology ripe and the design community facing a changing market, this model may finally have found a compelling enough reason to make it acceptable to designers. There is obviously no way to ascertain how the design community as a whole will greet this business model, but one thing is certain, the changing market is forcing the design community to consider lower cost, higher productivity design tools—two areas where SaaS has proven itself strongest.