Where SaaS Works Best

For all the talk about outsourcing design software, the market remains relatively untapped and highly limited.

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By Ed Sperling

Some of the largest corporations in the world use software-as-a-service, or SaaS to run their enterprise applications, trusting day-to-day operations to companies like Salesforce.com, Oracle, Microsoft and even Google.

But good luck finding any leading-edge chip vendors utilizing the SaaS model for their designs. While Cadence has been successful with some of its low-end tools and new players such as Productivity Design Tools Inc. (PDTi) are venturing into niche areas at the front end of the design cycle, the big chipmakers have never taken SaaS seriously.

There are several major reasons:

  • One of the key advantages of SaaS is that it keeps software current, but design teams need to work with the same rev of a long list of tools, some integrated and some not, for the life of a design. Economically, that doesn’t work for SaaS vendors because it requires dedicating servers for a single customer.
  • Designs contain valuable IP, and moving them around—often from building to building and country to country raises the specter of IP theft. While security has been improved to the point where this is far less of an issue than previously thought, it remains a deterrent.
  • Many files used in designs are enormous and graphically intensive, particularly in the back-end part of the design. Just moving around data from one group of design engineers to another can bring a network to its knees.

At least some of those issues, while not completely solved, are at least manageable now. But that still doesn’t mean SaaS will work across the EDA flow.

“Some of this can be done technically now,” said Gary Smith, founder of Gary Smith EDA. “Security has proved to not be a concern. The real problem is that when you do a design, you may use 28 different tools in a flow. If you get the tools going and freeze the tools at the same rev where you started, that means you don’t update the tools for a year. And you have to do that in multiple locations. The problem with SaaS is that you really have to have a set of tools completely under control, and dedicating servers for one design doesn’t make sense economically.”

Smith said Cadence has had some success with the lower end of the design world, where it basically turns over tools to the users. But he added that for power users and the upper part of the mainstream design world, that’s not an acceptable approach on either side. “Most of the money in EDA is in the upper end of the tools market,” he said.

That hasn’t deterred some newcomers to the field, though, and there are some benefits to SaaS when it comes to evaluations. PDTi President Jeremy Ralph said that with traditional on-premise software, getting evaluators to sign the necessary legal documents and install the software takes entirely too long. Doing that with a SaaS implementation is much quicker, but not all companies are ready for those kinds of changes.

“We can reduce the infrastructure cost for on-site maintenance and we can get around the complaints about using the same version,” Ralph said. “If a customer has a bug, we can call it up and fix all of it within a day. When you consider the advantages, total cost of ownership is definitely lower and the tools are price lower because we don’t have a very expensive sales channel. But our biggest competition is still internal solutions—people doing hardware-software interfaces on spreadsheets.”

He is optimistic SaaS will catch on for front-end tools, where knowledge needs to be formalized. That includes workflow management and project management. He calls that the low-hanging fruit. But on the back end, in areas such as synthesis and place-and-route, SaaS may be more of a topic for discussion than a successful business model.