Electronic design automation (EDA) tools are software tools that aid in the design of electronic systems. These usually focus on various aspects of electronics design and are therefore very complicated and extremely expensive pieces of software—selling in millions of rupees. What better (albeit illegal) reason to pirate them?
The Electronic Design Automation Consortium (EDAC) is an international association of companies developing EDA tools, which aims to cooperate for the benefit of the EDA industry. One of its most active committees is the EDAC anti-piracy committee. Regarding piracy, the committee states, “Until recently, many EDA vendors considered the software too complex to use without significant technical sup-port for piracy to be a major concern. Advances in EDA software and access to fabrication have resulted in increasing concerns about software piracy.”
We interviewed many start-ups and small independent design houses in India that work on extremely tight R&D budgets. When quizzed on the EDA tools they use, some admitted to the ‘occasional’ use of commercial EDA tools—without paying for them!
Jaswinder Ahuja, corporate vice president and managing director, Cadence Design Systems, says, “One must be careful to separate outright piracy from accidental misuse or non-compliance. For example, a design team might accidentally use a host ID more than once and run more software than the licence agreement allows. EDA vendors are looking into methods to address this issue.”
It is not just the revenue loss for the EDA vendors. Firms utilising pirated EDA tools are able to do R&D at a much lower budget, enjoying an unfair competitive advantage over other players.
What do the EDA vendors do to tackle this menace?
Although the first response would be to call in the lawyers and sue the pirate firms out of existence, smarter vendors plan to convert these firms into a revenue opportunity. Once the EDA vendor finds a firm using pirated software, the EDA vendor will follow up and instruct the firm on the importance of non-pirated software. If this doesn’t work, things can get legally tough for the pirate.
Ahuja says, “One solution employed by several EDA companies to address outright piracy is binary tampering detection. This involves detecting the use of pirated software and bringing its illegal use to the attention of the user. In some cases, individuals within companies use unlicensed software without their company’s knowledge, or companies inadvertently use licences improperly. In such cases, an awareness of the misdemeanour is enough to stop the piracy. If the piracy is deliberate, the focus is on converting the users into full paying customers.”
A more proactive measure that some major EDA firms take is to offer help to small firms in procuring the required EDA tools.
Pradip K. Dutta, corporate vice president and managing director, Synopsys, says, “A lot of start-ups have difficulty in purchasing commercial EDA tools because they are expensive—and yes, we have some very tailored programmes that our field operations use to get across to start-ups. We have a programme called SNUG—Synopsys Users Group Meeting—where we have a specific booth setup for the start-up community.”
“Typically, for educational institutes that don’t have funds to buy some of these expensive software, we offer special discounts, making the software both economical and affordable. We also offer bundled software packages that come with hardware that is almost complementary,” adds Sadaf Arif Siddiqui, marketing programme manager, Agilent Technologies.
Since start-ups and small design firms are usually cash-strapped, is it really worthwhile to target these firms? Dutta quips, “The lifeblood of any growing economy comes from entrepreneurs, and we have some very specific tailored programmes for start-ups. From what we hear, we would actually like to see some fabless designs from India because of its present growth in the electronics and semiconductor industries.”
“Cadence has always been supportive of start-ups in India. Each start-up is unique, and the business models are tailored to suit each one’s special requirements. For example, a start-up in the design services space is likely to have a different set of requirements from a start-up in IP or product development,” adds Ahuja.
Another way in which vendors hope to help start-ups is by providing EDA as a service in the cloud. By doing this, they retain control of the environment and do not have to worry about cracks, fake key generators or tampered code. Moreover, the EDA as a service offering has the flexibility to bring in new payment methods that could benefit smaller companies.
Ahuja adds, “One of the solutions that are ideal for start-ups is hosted design solutions by Cadence. These Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions combine industry-leading and production-proven technology, methodologies, services, collaboration and IT infrastructure. Outsourcing the elements of a production-grade design environment that are non-differentiating—yet critical—can address certain customer needs for reduced cost and risk, and are perfect for start-ups where budget considerations are critical.”
Of course, there are a lot of engineers who say that the Open Source EDA tools available will suffice for most start-ups and small design firms. Apart from the price factor, another reason to not go for commercial tools is their closed nature—closed file structures make it difficult to add custom features to tools.
Karan Thakkar, hobbyist and graduate from KIT’s College of Engineering, says, “I have worked with KiCad and Eagle, and both are easy to use. KiCad is free and Open Source and Eagle gives out a free evaluation version. I find Eagle more user-friendly because of the large repository of libraries freely available. Although the evaluation version of Eagle has some restriction on the size of the layout and the number of sheets, I would definitely rate it good enough for small electronics design firms.”
Besides Open Source, you can go for the free limited versions of popular commercial tools as well.
“Most EDA software are expensive and not within the reach of small industries and start-ups. But we can utilise the demo version—sometimes the demo version is sufficient to do lots of experiments,” says Sumit Vaish, director, Embedronics e-Design.