Tool makers stay flexible
In the electronics arena, engineers consider electronic design automation (EDA) tools indispensable for chip design. Cadence, Mentor Graphics, Synopsys, and other companies have developed into large, high-profile enterprises, and the Design Automation Conference is a major event on the electronics industry’s trade show calendar. Their counterparts in the photonics realm have not enjoyed an equal level of success — hindered, of course, by the downturn that decimated their customer base. Now that the optical communications market has shown signs of life, software-based optical design tool makers hope that expanded product portfolios will win them customers in whichever rung of the component/subsystem/system development ladder innovation appears.
Like most niches within optical communications, the tool maker space has seen contraction. Currently, three players dominate the market: RSoft Design Group (which expanded its offerings when it bought systems-level tool developer Artis Ltd. in 2003), Optiwave, and VPIsystems. However, “domination” hasn’t led to companies that rival their EDA counterparts. Part of this is due to the slowdown in optical communications R&D and the market in general. Yet as their customers’ business has improved, the outlook for the tool vendors has brightened as well.
“Just like the overall market, it’s definitely stabilized, and we see a reasonable rebound,” says Zhengyu Huang, vice president of sales at RSoft (www.rsoftdesign.com). “It’s not that we’re talking about double or triple again, like in early 2000 or 2001. But double-digit growth is definitely there.”
Yet the addressable market remains small compared to the electronics world. “It’s still a tough market out there in the overall optical communications space,” Huang adds. “You almost have to be the so-called number one market share leader to have a healthy business — to have the scale, to have the resources, to maintain your operation. Otherwise, you’re forced to become a niche player, to just focus on one or two products. We’re trying to position ourselves as a full solution provider across all the areas that people need.”
For all three of the major vendors, “full solutions” mean tools for the design of optical components (down to the waveguide or laser-cavity level, at least in some instances), subsystems, and systems. RSoft and VPIsystems (www.vpisystems.com) also offer network design software; Optiwave (www.optiwave.com) has such a capability in development but is still deciding how to bring it to market, according to company president and chief executive officer Jan Jakubczyk.
The three compete across the design spectrum, although which company is the market leader and which is number two depends on the vendor doing the talking and which of the three design levels is under discussion. All three agree that they compete as much against the in-house expertise of their potential customers as they do each other. So often the trick is to convince a chief technology officer or scientist that a commercial tool will work as well or better than the program the potential customer has lovingly developed already.
“On the physical models,” Huang explains, “a lot of companies have PhDs or researchers to be able to do that. But on the software engineering apps side, they either have no resources or expertise to provide what the commercial software can provide.”
“The difference today is that the graphical user interface of these tools is so advanced that people don’t want to develop that in-house,” says Jackson Klein, director of optical systems at Optiwave.
“It’s kind of a common sense argument,” says LuAnn Scarmozzino, RSoft’s vice president of marketing. “With commercial tools, you have a good feedback from the industry to improve and better the products, versus the in-house tool that doesn’t have the benefit of having that industry feedback. It’s just an avenue to a better design process.”
However, instead of ripping a favored tool out of an engineer’s computer, the commercial tool vendors have found that it’s better to play nicely. That means developing offerings that interface easily with a customer’s homegrown models. “You fit into their process; you don’t change their process,” offers Klein. “That’s a major problem with software tools. If you have to reeducate [customers in] how you do your development and your research, then you’re competing with the internal people. They don’t want that. So you need to find a way to fit into the place.”
Flexibility, in fact, is one of the major selling points for commercial tools. In addition to being able to incorporate their in-house tools, engineers want to be able to start with models that provide basic parameters, but accept changes based on the engineer’s requirements, a desire to mimic the performance of a specific vendor’s offering (say, to evaluate the effect of using wavelength-selective switches from a different supplier), or measurement results the customer’s staff has derived themselves. “They really want to see the merging between the simulation world and the real problem they have,” says Andre Richter, director of photonic design automation at VPIsystems.
Needless to say, the accuracy of the commercial models also counts heavily when engineers evaluate the adoption of a commercial tool. “Usually, people still want to [take] the laboratory and experimental results that they have and compare if they can get it with the tool,” says Enrico Ghillino, product manager of optical systems at RSoft. Ease of use — from the graphical user interface to the ease with which the tool accepts changes in parameters and how well it works with other tools — also represent important factors. Klein says that customers can spend as long as two months putting a tool through its paces before accepting it.
Then, once the tool has passed muster, the company supplying it frequently must do so as well. “In the traditional optical communications area, I would say the technology has developed such that it’s pretty mature,” says Huang. “So they’re more concerned about the stability of the company and the support they’re going to get.”
“There’s a big emphasis lately on having reliability and having a company with a good support philosophy,” agrees Scarmozzino.
Tool support can approach the level of consulting, sources at all three companies agree. Frequently, the task goes to PhDs on the tool supplier’s staff.
The combination of accurate, flexible tools backed by strong support has made commercial tools much more accepted today than they were 5 years ago, all the sources agree. All three vendors claim that their offerings have found a home in Tier 1 suppliers worldwide. Universities also provide a ready customer base; Richter says that VPIsystems has tools in more than 100 universities worldwide, while Jakubczyk acknowledges that the university market provided a refuge for Optiwave during the downturn. The interactions with universities help the tool makers keep abreast of research trends and requirements, as well as build loyalty among potential customers as the students use the tools in their schoolwork.
With the market picking up, the sources find that several applications currently stand out. Not surprisingly, datacom is big (RSoft has readied its first electronic dispersion-compensation model to pair with its multimode simulation capabilities for 10GBase-LRM, for example), as is equipment for the last mile. Both VPIsystems and Optiwave report that radio over fiber is a very hot application as well.
Photonic design tools probably will never make their suppliers equal in revenue to their major EDA siblings. But continued health in the optical communications space, as well as continuing technical innovation, should provide enough revenue to ensure that engineers will have a choice of suppliers.