Slow Start To Software-As-A-Service

Why SaaS hasn’t caught on in the SoC tools world and whether that will change in the future.

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By Pallab Chatterjee

Can software as a service (SaaS) really work in the SoC design tools world? While many of the large EDA vendors continue to experiment with it, the future of this model isn’t especially promising.

This is contrary to the overall trend among big software makers, which even in the large enterprise applications space are finding success with SaaS and the related cloud-computing model. But applying it to the SoC design world has proved to be harder than it looks.

The SaaS model is predicated on a software operating mode that was developed throughout this decade. For it work, code needs to be multicore- and multithread-aware, has to support multiprocessing and distributed operations and requires a user interface that operates from a middle tier so full data is not accessed per operation. It also needs an ultra-thin client query/reporting/visualization engine, a secure restart mode in case of network failure, and a revision control and archive mechanism. Software written since about 2000 follows these guidelines, but some of the older pieces of code that are still in place would need a rewrite to work in a SaaS world.

So where do the major tools vendors stand on SaaS?

Cadence Design Systems is promoting the SaaS model with its Hosted Design Solutions. Vishal Kapoor, group marketing director for enterprise solutions and services at Cadence, said the company is pursuing a standard “Oracle-like” SaaS business. The company has set up multiple hosting centers in 13 locations worldwide and has installed a complete “standard single vendor flow” including script management. This environment requires some minimum level of IT at the client side, so it is just a “small client” rather than an “ultra thin client” solution. Cadence has been using the solution in-house for some time, but it is now looking to leverage its own experience in the market.

Synopsys has used SaaS internally, as well, but its market success has been extremely limited. Matt Gutierrez, director of marketing for global technical services and Glen Dukes, vice president of professional services at Synopsys, said the company tried Saas earlier in the decade when it re-architected and re-wrote key products to operate as ultra-thin client applications attached to a large central compute core. This core could be located at a customer site, at Synopsys or hosted in a cloud. The redesigned products were built with inherent security features in the thin client application. The market, however, did not embrace the model because most clients were using multiple tool vendors in their design sequence and were also implementing proprietary and non-standard design flows. As a result, the SaaS model was pulled back as a mainstream offering.

However, the technology and infrastructure has been in place and in use by the in-house global services group at Synopsys for more than 100 designs. A result of this SaaS market launch was the creation and eventual release of the Ly-nx Design environment. This is a software package that acts as the thin client head and allows for launch, scripting interconnect, and socketing of both Synopsys and third party tools into an integrated flow. This flow can be customized at the client site as it is distributed in source code form.

Mentor Graphics continues to look at Saas, but so far it hasn’t seen an opportunity worth pursuing. “Our experience to date is companies that view design as a competitive differentiator want to own their own design flow,” said Jacqui Tull, Mentor’s director of pricing and packaging. “If it isn’t a differentiator, they may outsource parts of their design and have no need for tools. Furthermore, if you take a SaaS model, how do you use and integrate tools from different vendors? Doesn’t it just become another way for companies to try to get designers to use only their tools? So the market for companies that care enough about design to do it, but don’t care enough about it to own the design flow, isn’t a very large market. We’ll certainly respond to customer demand, but at the moment we aren’t seeing much demand for SaaS.”

Silvaco International and Simucad (spun off from Silvaco in 2006) also looked at this model but did not achieve any traction with customers. As most of their clients are doing custom design or leading-edge process development, there is “no standardized flow and methodology” that is being used, said Mark Maurer, director of government and military sales and marketing at Silvaco. Consequently, they have focused on traditional technology files and basic process design kits (PDKs) with their clients. But they have created some new licensing models, including the Omni License, site licenses, as well as token-based and time-based licenses.

Magma explored SaaS, as well, and concluded the model can be applied to the company’s tools even though that currently isn’t happening, said John Lee, product line director. Magma’s unified database environment is predicated on all the tools in the flow keeping results in one place and having a common structured flow, so the challenges of using a multivendor flow isn’t an issue. Additionally, when the company was formed, all the products were architected for a thin-client operation. Magma is not formally offering a SaaS product, based on their hosting capabilities or availability of the software on a cloud or private compute farm, but the possibility has not been ruled out.

So does SaaS work for SoC tools? While it’s technically possible, the lack of a single flow makes it much harder. And with flow and design differentiation a key differentiator for semiconductor companies, it’s highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. But no one has shut the door completely on this approach, either.