Mentor Graphics: Designeering Partnerships

Date:   Thursday , January 31, 2008

It was the bold vision of Walden C.Rhines, the CEO of Mentor Graphics that made him decide to set up the company’s India operations. The semiconductor industry in India in the early ’90s was quite similar to alchemy in the Middle Ages. Everybody could envision a possible evolution of an entirely new industry, which in those days was a part of the electronics industry. But very few could find an optimal answer for the complex search which required understanding the application, the system domain, digital function and control, the fundamentals of circuits, and IC fabrication technology. But the man who during his tenure has more than doubled the revenue (projected revenue of current fiscal year to be over $850 million) over the last five years and has taken his company forward to be the fastest growing among the ‘Big 3’ EDA companies could not have been wrong.

Today Rhines is a happy man. With three centers in India (Bangalore, Hyderabad, and Noida) and 435 engineers, his design tools for Scalable Functional Verification (including Verification of Power-aware designs), hardware-assisted Verification of full-chip ASICs an SoCs, FPGA design and synthesis, printed circuit boards, co-verification, design for test, intellectual property cores, and embedded systems products amongst many others developed out of these centers by the engineers are ruling the roost with strong market positions. In the PCB design tool market, Mentor Graphics leads with 37 percent market share.

However, the going is getting tougher for Rhines and Mentor Graphics with the multi dimensional challenges the industry is facing today. The challenges start from the sheer complexity of managing more transistors on a chip, which requires newer tools, databases, and product power consumption rate. “We are actually limited in how big we can make our designs by the amount of power they dissipate, rather than by the number of transistors,” he explains. As the industry moves to nano dimensions it brings yet another challenge of device physics. Today, physics-based simulation and design have become a completely new area for EDA. The way we simulate, verify, and analyze the device structure has also undergone a sea change. “We have had to move from a rule-based verification to a model-based optical simulation of the whole manufacturing process in order to determine how a person should design a product,” explains Rhines.

All these challenges notwithstanding, Rhines is undaunted. His confidence abounds due to two reasons. One because of the unique strategy Mentor Graphics follows to tackle the challenges, in identifying critical areas or problems in the industry and work towards solving them and finding new areas of growth. The second reason is his research team that consistently pursues research activities in niche areas. When it comes to design spectrum, he relies greatly on the recommendations of his design engineers in India as they are quite known for their prowess. Forty-five design engineers from India work in collaboration with the global research team in resolving some of the key challenges the industry is facing today.

Explaining on the increasing influence of India design centers on multinational design flows and tools Rhines said, “Designers in India were early adopters of C-based design, and it was their willingness to try new approaches that caused multinational parent companies to accelerate their own adoption. Now there is a compelling pool of expertise here in India for us to leverage”. Cashing in on this vast repository of resources in India and to meet the growing customer base in the country, Mentor Graphics recently announced its expansion of India operations during the inauguration of its new facility in Bangalore.

Technology evolution
As the growth curves go up for the EDA industry, Mentor Graphics and its India centers have a well defined path to grab a significant part of this growth. The two development centers in India cater to several market segments including tools for verification, synthesis, design for test, PCB, cable harnesses, and physical verification.

However the road ahead is not easy for these centers. “It was quite similar to any offshore center of a big corporate in the initial days,” explains Dr. Srinivas Mandavilli, Managing Director of the Hyderabad R&D center of Mentor Graphics, India. “We used to do piece-meal work related to the PCB design tools of Mentor Graphics,” explains Mandavilli. But slowly as the activities of the center gained momentum they started developing products in this area for Mentor Graphics. Today, the Hyderabad center claims engineering ownership for the entire Board station product suite of PCB design tools of the company. Apart from the PCB tool products, the center also focuses on cabling harness tools, and co-verification tools.

Wire harness design and electrical analysis are key challenging areas for the automotive industry, which has traditionally not been using EDA software. “Imagine a situation in your car. You have switched on the wiper and the engine shuts off,” explains Mandavilli. “A small mistake in the interconnection can lead to big consequences,” he continues. This challenge in the industry became an opportunity for Mentor Graphics. They developed the Cable Harnessing System (CHS) tools with a data centric architecture that provides a powerful design environment for the harness industry. A lot of work related to designing cable harnessing systems for the automobile industry is being done in India, which was one of the reasons for Mentor Graphics to form a cabling R&D group at Hyderabad.

While focusing on such complex technologies, Mandavilli and his team are also faced with yet another challenging task. They are a vital part of the big corporate and contribute largely in retaining Mentor Graphics’s position as one among the top three market leaders in the EDA industry. He is constantly striving to drive innovation in his team and to bring out the best from his employees; he gives them ample opportunities for research activities, which are well complemented with several reward programs.

Innovation through acquisition
The EDA industry has been historically known for its mergers and acquisitions. Usually a small company with a niche technology gets merged with the three big giants of the industry. Mentor Graphics has also strengthened its position through acquisitions. It has acquired many companies with niche technologies, as part of an innovation drive to add value to customers in specific areas. In such a strategic initiative Mentor Graphics acquired IKOS systems in early 2002. IKOS had a strong product line in emulation and synthesis technology which added more value to Mentor Graphics customer base by delivering high-performance solutions that enable its customers to verify the functional correctness of their complex electronic system designs. The Noida center of Mentor Graphics started working on the emulation product line of IKOS and integrated many of its technologies in to Mentor Graphics’s products. Jyotirmoy Daw, Managing Director of the Noida center of Mentor Graphics was with IKOS system when the company acquired IKOS. Today he steers the operations of the Noida center which has a strong R&D division that works on Functional Verification (Simulation, Emulation and Formal Verification), Synthesis technology for the FPGA tools and advanced Debug tools for Verification and Test products.

“Even today, verification remains a huge challenge, because the technology has not kept pace with the increasing levels of verification,” explains Daw. He also leads a research team on Questa, the functional verification platform of Mentor Graphics based on System Verilog which helps designers to use the latest language standards and methodologies to find bugs faster and increase verification productivity. The research team in Noida is also working on advanced low power design verification technology based UPF standard and third generation of Transaction based Co-emulation technology based in SCEMI standards pioneered by IKOS.

Working on the next generation verification platforms and emulation products require resources of high caliber. When Daw says, “We employ only the brightest talent”, don’t ignore it as a cliché. Out of 160 engineers in the Noida center 110 are from IITs across the country and they love working in Mentor because of the work challenge and the work culture. The center gives opportunities to interested students to do research from the third year of their studies. Thus students get an exposure to the challenging work as well as the organizational culture of the company.

An unique win-win business model
Today, as the EDA market evolves to the tune of dozens of new startups and ambitious private and public companies, Mentor Graphics is carefully placing its bets for the future, to keep the technology business profitable. Hence, it has devised partnership models to address its customers in three segments which include the Indian semiconductor companies or the third party Design Services firms, the R&D centers of big multinational companies like Texas Instruments, Freescale Semiconductors, ST Micro, Nokia and HP, the captive centres of companies like Brodcomm, LSI Logic, QualComm, AMD-ATI, Cypress semiconductors and the automotive electronics segment. These partnership models ensure a longer period of profitability to the company.

The company addresses the model at three different levels. Starting from the distribution model where it partners with other firms to market and sell its products as well as support the customers to take it to different parts of the country. One such partner of Mentor Graphics is CG-CoreEl that takes Mentor Graphics products from different domains like Functional verification (FV), Design for Test (DFT), Analog & Mixed Signal (AMS), Physical Design, Physical Verification, Design for Manufacturing (DFM) & Litho friendly Design (LFD), System Design, Harness Systems and Embedded Automotive Electronics. Through the partners Mentor Graphics’s products even reach the defense establishments of the country like ISRO, DRDO, LRDE, ADE, BEL and ANURAG. This model is also used in some of the education institutions and universities across the country. Mentor Graphics donates the tools to the engineering colleges so that the students get hands on experience working on the tools from the seventh semester. They are also encouraged to take up projects in the areas where these tools are used. The professors are also trained to use the tools. Mentor Graphics has partnered with all IITs, NITs and leading Universities in the country to assist their research in the areas of VLSI & System Design by making its tools available to them. Such research activities are being carried out in some other institutions as well.

Another group of target partners of Mentor Graphics is the startup firms. The startup firms in the EDA space will have to make huge investments to buy the various design and verification tools in the market. Hence, Mentor Graphics partners with these startups to let them use the tools at a subsidized cost in the beginning and later proceed to a revenue sharing model as the startups’ revenues grow. Till now Mentor Graphics has partnered with some successful startups like Opensilicon, Beceem Communications, Purple Vision (acquired by Mindtree), Tejast Networks, Cosmic Circuits, Tessolve, Redpine Signals, and IChip Technology among others.

When Satya Gupta, founder of OpenSilicon decided to leave Intel’s micro electronics services division (IMS) to start the company, Mentor Graphics shared his vision from the time the idea was conceptualized and entered into a dialogue with him to understand the business model, target customers, and the technology involved. Mentor Graphics partnered with Gupta and made available its tools to his team to help him overcome challenges in the design area. Mentor Graphics partners with such startups in a revenue sharing model, which ensures longer profitability to the company and a growth opportunity for the startup.

Apart from all this, Mentor Graphics has formed strategic alliances with companies to address the technology challenges the industry on the whole will be facing in the next couple of years. “System Verilog is evolving as the mainstream verification language and companies are challenged in the SystemVerilog IP space. To address this challenge, we partner with some of the services companies like Wipro, HCL, MindTree, eInfochips, TataElxsi and KPIT-Cummins in a program called Questa Vanguard Program (QVP) to co-innovate, research and grow the infrastructure of SystemVerilog IP”, explains Raghu Panicker, Director, Sales. “As a result of this effort we do have a sizeable amount of verification IP in several domains,” he adds. Similar to this partnership we also have tied-up with leading educational institutions, where in we provide access to our EDA tools. When the companies develop Verification IPs in System Verilog and sell them to other customers, Mentor Graphics’s tools penetrate newer markets and segments. The aim is not to gain any monetary benefits from the partnership, but to widen the market reach and help industry to easily migrate to SystemVerilog based Verification environments.

From the time when Rhines set up his first R&D division in India many things have changed. With the changing times and technology, Mentor Graphics India division has successfully emerged as a strong backbone of the big corporate. As the EDA industry is poised for yet another swift take off, Mentor Graphics is well equipped for the ride with a well-planned core-engineering and technology roadmap and competent resources.