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Limits of IP block strategy exposed

Posted: 02 May 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:intellectual property? ip? soc? ip block? eda?

The lesson of Barcelona Design Inc., the analog automation pioneer now disbanding, is that good technology and plenty of venture money will not save a company with an unclear business model and overly ambitious goals.

But on a deeper level, Barcelona's failure also calls into question the idea of building a company around analog intellectual property (IP). Barcelona's vision was one in which SoC designers would buy or synthesize large analog IP blocks and plug them into complex mixed-signal designs as easily as they might put analog devices onto a PCB.

"It's a sad tale of how great technology can go wrong," said Joseph Costello, chairman of Barcelona and the former CEO of Cadence Design Systems Inc. Costello recently confirmed that Barcelona, which had garnered about $44 million in venture capital funding, is winding down its operations and seeking a buyer for its technology.

In the wake of the Barcelona experiment, observers said that analog IP must be offered within the context of a broader solution that includes tools, services and lots of support. Most analog IP development remains in-house at large companies, and a lot of analog functionality is still going off-chip.

"I think that if someone figures out a way to deliver soft [analog] IP that is easily customizable and can be ported quickly, there would be a market for those soft IP blocks," said co-founder Mar Hershenson, who left Barcelona in 2003 for "work and personal" reasons and is now involved with an unidentified startup. Hershenson, who also teaches part-time at Stanford University, said she was unsure why Barcelona failed. But she noted that hard IP is difficult to reuse because "the specs and processes change so often."

"The problem at Barcelona is that they often looked more like a business school experiment rather than a company," said Gary Smith, chief EDA analyst at Gartner Dataquest. Nevertheless, in Smith's view, Hershenson "still stands out as one of the best minds in analog automation." As a Stanford graduate student, she did groundbreaking work in nonlinear convex optimization and its impact on automating analog design.

"Barcelona had the potential to be the catalyst in developing a true register-transfer flow for analog design," Smith said. "The analog EDA market is still struggling, and there is no one around to match Mar and her vision."

Founded in 1999 by Hershenson and Stanford professor Stephen Boyd, the company claimed breakthrough analog synthesis technology and pioneered a Web-based pay-per-use model. Customers were to license Barcelona's IP, along with its synthesis tool, then use the tool to optimize circuits for a specific process.

Some big names in EDA saw good potential there. Besides Costello, Barcelona claimed backing from Robert Dobkin, Linear Technology's CTO; Abbas El Gamal, founder of Actel and Silicon Architects; and Buno Pati, former CEO at Numerical Technologies.

But "wonderful new technologies can screw up, even with all kinds of luminaries to guide them," Costello said. One problem from the outset, he noted, was that the Barcelona team did not have much EDA or semiconductor industry experience. That is not something that can be supplied at the corporate-board level.

Success not enough

Barcelona found initial success with op amps, but that was not a big enough business, Costello said. So it started chasing the holy grail of large IP blocks, such as phase-locked loops and adcs and DACs. "No one had ever done compilers for blocks of that size," he said.

But those large IP blocks were complicated to build, Costello noted, given the need to crank out "tons of variations" for different processes. And there was not as much of a market as the company had hoped. "It was more or less a service and consulting type of business, and it was a niche," he said.

In June last year, Barcelona announced that it was swapping its IP-based model for a more conventional EDA licensing scheme. As the focus shifted back to the company's equation-based synthesis tools, Barcelona cut its 60-some staff roughly in half. But Costello said that the switch to an EDA model never really happened.

Instead, he said, Barcelona started looking at ways to extend its analog compiler technology into the digital domain. When it became clear that there was no "quick hit," the board decided to call it quits.

Would a more consistent business model have saved Barcelona? Possibly not, observers say, unless accompanied by a better understanding of what it takes to make analog IP a successful business.

The third-party analog IP market is a small one. In 2003 it totaled $26.6 million, said Jim Tully, chief semiconductor analyst at Gartner Dataquest, compared with $1.02 billion for semiconductor IP. Moreover, Tully said, analog IP was flat from 2002 to 2003.

"There is considerable user demand in the market, but no vendor has found a way of satisfying that demand as a standard-packaged piece of IP," Tully said. "You need a lot of service bundled with the IP in order to make it work in the customer's environment."

Jose-Maria Moniz, head of customer services and communications for Chipidea Microelectronica SA, one of the largest providers of analog and mixed-signal IP, thinks the market is larger than most surveys indicate. Research studies miss the analog and mixed-signal component of key markets like cellular, wireless and digital media, he said.

Chipidea alone had $18.8 million in revenue in 2004 and is rapidly growing, Moniz said. But he emphasized that analog IP "is not a building-block market. It is about delivering complex analog subsystems." Using a suite of proprietary design tools, Chipidea's 140-person engineering team offers what Moniz called "full solutions."

Analog IP involves more than blocks going inside SoCs, he noted. "We are witnessing an interesting trend for our larger, complex analog subsystems, which are staying at 0.18?m and going off-chip," he said. "Customers are increasingly asking us to deliver the IP for a standalone analog solution."

Competitor Qualcore Logic Inc. offers digital and analog IP and design services, with about 60 percent of its business in analog. The company has around 130 people in India and 30 in its U.S. headquarters.

"To be in this business, you need to have a very broad portfolio of IP and be able to provide customization services with it," said CEO Mahendra Jain.

He noted that considerable engineering development is needed for analog IP, and he expressed doubt that a tool such as Barcelona's could fully automate it.

Indeed, "the analog IP market is really more of a services-based market," said Phil Dworsky, director of marketing for DesignWare IP at Synopsys Inc.

"You can't just provide a piece of the answer and be successful," said Felicia James, general manager of Cadence's Virtuoso business unit. "You have to look at analog IP within the broader system."

At least one potential Barcelona customer liked the technology, but hated the business model. "They wanted to own the tools and the IP," said Michael Bourland, an analog IC designer who declined to identify his company affiliation. "Imagine if Cadence, or more appropriately Synopsys, told RTL developers that they owned the IP developed using their tools?"

Even with good technology, Bourland said, Barcelona's tools could not match the performance, size and quality of a full-custom design. But they could have solved some time-to-market problems, he said.

Barcelona today consists of a few people who are winding things down and shopping around the technology. "I think there's still a home for it," Costello said. "It has real applicability to both analog and digital design.

"The morality tale is that all the king's men can still mess up big time. Wonderful technology that can add tremendous value to the world doesn't necessarily make a giant-home-run company."

- Richard Goering

EE Times

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