Nick Martin is not bound by high-tech tradition. If he were traditional, he’d have a PhD from Berkeley, UC Irvine, or MIT. If he were traditional, his COO would be an MBA from Stanford and Altium would be another venture-funded EDA company in a high-tech corridor like Silicon Valley, Research Triangle, or Boulder. If he were traditional, Altium’s tools would be 80% functional, they’d have no sales or distribution channel, and they’d be looking to be acquired by one of the three major EDA companies.
Instead, Nick is founder and joint-CEO of Altium, Ltd., who is changing the landscape of FPGA and board design with their unconventional approach. Altium’s Nexar, announced about a year ago, is quickly establishing itself as the high-capability, low-cost alternative to vendor-specific toolsets for FPGA. Nexar provides an end-to-end system for FPGA design, including a full range of vendor-neutral IP, support for embedded software development, a hardware prototyping and debug system with plug-in modules for devices from Xilinx, Altera, and Actel, and smooth integration with printed circuit board design. Nexar uses a board design approach to system design with FPGAs, allowing designers to stitch together high-level IP building blocks in a schematic environment as an alternative to HDL-based design entry. Both the design paradigm and the price (well under $10K USD) are readily approachable by the average board/system designer wanting to harness the power of FPGA.
Nick came to Australia on a migration program from England at age 14. He attended University of Tasmania, but didn’t finish. “I didn’t have the patience,” Martin quips. “I went out to look for business opportunities.” After a year and a half of college he found himself writing computer games for the Z80-based Microbee (an early 1980s Australian kit computer sold as a baggie full of parts and a circuit board), and pursuing his passion for electronics and design. “Ever since I was a kid,” he recalls, “I was always building radios and stuff. My first commercial electronics project was a floppy disk controller for a CPM system.”
When the Microbee started to run out of steam, Martin went to work at the university designing electronics subsystems. “I worked on things like navigation for high-altitude balloons based on a Z80,” Martin continues, “and I noticed that you couldn’t buy CAD software that wasn’t horrendously expensive. To solve the problem, I wrote some software of my own which quickly became popular around the university.” The success of Nick’s home-brew design tools inspired him to think about the state of the industry as it related to access to design automation software.
“We started Protel in 1985, because I wanted to make tools accessible so everybody could have access to the best technology. Design software had always been an elite thing where only big companies with big budgets could participate. I wanted to change that by offering affordable, high-quality software that was easy to approach and learn with soft policies on upgrades and maintenance.” The startup of Protel was completely bootstrapped with no venture capital or outside investment. “There was really no venture capital concept in Australia so we didn’t have that option,” Martin recalls.
Nick felt that a fledgling EDA company had to succeed in the United States in order to succeed worldwide. He spent three years in the US, setting up the company’s presence there. “I knew if you built a local technology company on a local market, eventually the larger companies would come in and smother you,” Martin continues. “The compiler market saw that with companies like Borland and Microsoft. We were an Australian company with 99% of our revenues coming from outside Australia.”
Protel was a hit and the company flourished, selling low-cost board design software. Martin and company saw another market change coming, though. With the cost of ASIC-based systems skyrocketing and programmable platforms such as FPGAs on the rise, Nick’s team felt the time was right to re-define the company, incorporating robust support for FPGA-based design in their tools. They went public, re-branded the company from Protel International to Altium Limited and began a multi-year transition involving several acquisitions and a globalization of development. Their plan was to position the company to take advantage of the coming revolution in programmable logic technology and the availability of communications and networking infrastructure that would allow distributed, international development of a sophisticated, integrated engineering platform for board-based systems with FPGAs.
“We see a market change coming, and we want to continue our mission of helping people build electronic products,” says Martin. “In the early days of the microprocessor industry, the tools were all proprietary, but companies grew up that provided better solutions and didn’t lock you into one vendor’s technology. We want to do a similar thing for FPGA design: provide a high-quality, vendor-neutral solution with non-sticky IP and a clean interface to board design tools.”
Martin strongly believes that EDA technology should not be the exclusive property of the elite. “We work with people that have to justify every dollar they spend,” Martin continues. “We don’t want to have a situation where electronics design is segregated into the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. If you get enough critical mass behind low-cost solutions and they generate enough revenue to support themselves, the low-cost solutions will dominate and press others out. The other companies will have to struggle to justify what they expect customers to pay.”
To realize that vision, Altium acquired companies with both embedded software technology and FPGA technology and embarked on an ambitious five-year plan to develop Nexar. The complexities of multi-site development across oceans and time zones made the challenge more interesting. “It took us a long time to get our hardware and embedded software teams to work together, and we learned a lot in the process,” Martin recalls. “We had to set up a common goal that everybody believed in and that everybody understood. Then we had to set up a lot of communication. We used a single network that works throughout the world: common databases, shared servers, chat. The product shows that it is possible to do all that and succeed. Nexar proved that we could do something together that we couldn’t do separately.”
The first version of Nexar was announced by Altium about a year ago with great fanfare. The original version supported low-cost devices like Xilinx’s Spartan and Altera’s Cyclone series. Since then, new versions have been released with support for additional vendors such as Actel and high-end devices like Xilinx Virtex series and Altera’s Stratix. The process of launching such an ambitious program has been lengthy and difficult, but Martin feels that the company’s Australian roots are an asset on that front. “In Australia, there is little overall understanding of the EDA business,” Martin explains. “We explained to investors that we were embarking on a five-year plan and they understood that and stuck with us. Now that Nexar is in its second stage with 32-bit processors, we’re well positioned to capitalize as the paradigm shift happens.”
Part of the paradigm shift Altium is betting on is the migration of increasing amounts of IP from the board itself into FPGAs, and the transition of board designers into FPGA-based system designers. “It just works so much better if more of the design is ‘soft’,” Martin explains. “Soft IP can be easily changed after the hardware is manufactured, therefore it can be developed in real time, on real hardware, after the “hard” hardware design is committed.” This also makes great business sense, since the company built a large contingency of board design customers with their Protel PCB products. “We had watched one customer put a big investment in training people on HDLs, and after a year their whole effort was abandoned. The engineers wanted to stay on the paradigm they grew up on,” Martin recalls. “Our initial focus was on allowing people to continue using their board design skills and on making the addition of programmable logic design very smooth.”
Martin doesn’t expect the process to end with just a board design methodology, though. “As tools become more powerful, learning curves go up. Designers come in and realize what a huge difference the tools have made, and they reflect that progress themselves. It used to be a big issue to match board layout back to your schematic. Now that the tools handle that automatically, people take it for granted and focus on more important things. Overall, the board design profession itself has become more of an engineering discipline than a technician discipline. PCB designers now have to understand manufacturability, signal integrity, and economics. Next, a large part of the digital design will be migrating into programmable logic, and designers have to become a part of that. Just as people changed from being draftsmen to engineers to deal with issues like signal integrity, now they’ll have to learn and adopt programmable logic.”
As design teams make that transition, Altium will be a force to be reckoned with. “Even now, some larger companies are moving to our low-cost solution,” Martin observes. “The proliferation of FPGAs is an inertia breaker and is requiring companies to re-tool. It’s embarrassing to be using high-cost tools and to find out that a low-cost solution works five times faster.” It wouldn’t embarrass Nick Martin, however. He’s made a career and a company out of his vision of breaking down barriers to engineering innovation. If Nexar succeeds, it will be a bottom-up revolution, starting in the small companies and working its way up through the project teams at the big corporations. When that happens, somewhere down in Sydney, Nick Martin will be smiling.