Jun 17, 2014

Synopsys’s IP Initiative

posted by Bryon Moyer

IP used to refer to hardware designs that could be purchased off the shelf. Actually, at first they were designs that wouldn’t really work for any real application without a consulting contract to adapt them. But, over time, “shrink wrapped” became more viable. The idea was to save design time.

That idea still holds, but we’ve replaced one problem – design of individual blocks – with another: assembling all of the IP blocks into a complete system. And these IP blocks are more than your grampa’s simple fast Fourier transform; these are typically complete protocols that need to run a software stack.

Once assembled, the system will run the system software that’s being written for the SoC in parallel with the hardware design –software that’s separate from, and likely makes use of, the shrink-wrapped protocol libraries that may accompany the hardware IP.

So the full project development process involves hardware designers getting hardware running – first in prototypes, then in silicon. Meanwhile, software guys are coding away, using both virtual prototypes of the hardware and, eventually, the hardware prototypes that the hardware buys built.

In order to accommodate this more complex flow, Synopsys has announced their IP Initiative. It involves a more holistic view of how IP is integrated into SoCs, and the idea is to make the IP and accompanying elements work out of the box so no time is wasted on things that have already been completed – all of the effort can go into integration.

The image below shows the bigger picture of what they’re trying to accomplish. It includes both existing elements (like the hardware IP) and new elements being released as of the announcement, like the prototyping kits.

Figure.png

The IP prototyping kits are intended for hardware engineers, and they include a working reference design out-of-the-box on a HAPS board. IP licencees will have access to the accompanying IP RTL. Meanwhile, the IP software development kits include tools and virtual platform models of the IP that, again, work out-of-the-box.

The final bit, customized IP subsystems, gets to the challenges of putting all of these pieces together and coaxing them to work. Individual IP blocks work out of the box, but assembling them into an SoC isn’t trivial. Synopsys offers services to help create subsystems out of blocks.

You can read more about their offering in their announcement.

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Jun 16, 2014

What is a technology company?

posted by Dick Selwood

Am I being picky or over-sensitive? A recent report talks about how Europe has produced 30 technology companies worth more than $1bn. They include "Clothing retailer Asos, games studio King Digital, property portfolio Zoopla and music service Spotify." Are these technology companies? Zoopla's core business is pulling together into a single web site, property listings from a wide range of sources. They do have other service for the estate agents whose properties they advertise and there is serious technology underlying this, but if you look at their job ads, of the 15 on the site today, only two are for technologists (Perl and Python developers). The rest are for people involved in the business of getting more ads onto their site and more users to the site.

Again Asos, which claims to be the most visited fashion and beauty website in the world, is in rag trade- it exists to sell clothes. Again serious underlying technology, but that is not the point.

Europe does have technology companies, ARM and Imagination, Infineon, STMicroelectronics are companies who create technology. So are companies who build systems using their products, such as Thales.

All financial organisations use massive amounts of technology: high frequency trading- a technology for gaming the markets that is under a great deal of critical scrutiny but somehow seems to be unstoppable - exploits mind staggering technologies, but even retail banking would be  impossible without technology, yet these companies are not labelled as technology companies.

Confusing companies who use technology to deliver a product or service with companies who create technology seems dangerous. When the dotcom bubble burst it was companies using technologies who were the problem, but the companies who create technology were equally hammered by the stock markets.

Since there is nothing we can do about it, I suppose I should just ignore it all and keep my fingers crossed that when this bubble bursts, real technology companies survive.

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Jun 12, 2014

Sensor or Switch?

posted by Bryon Moyer

Honeywell recently released a new AMR (anisotropic magneto-resistive) sensor. We looked at this basic technology some time back, but there was another aspect of the release that confused me: the sensor was compared to a reed switch. And, at first glance, I don’t see a switch (=actuator) and a sensor as being the same thing.

For those of you steeped in this technology, what follows may seem rather basic and even obvious. But if you’re new to the space, then there’s some room to untangle some concepts that can be easily conflated.

Part of the issue has to do with being precise with terms that might be confused. If I think sloppily, I end up confusing a reed switch with a reed relay. What’s the difference? Well, a reed switch is simply a two-lead component. The switch connects the leads, presumably completing some circuit. That switch is actuated by a magnetic field (either to open or close it). That field is applied externally; exactly how depends on the application. Critically, there’s no magnetic component built into the switch.

So, in a way, the reed switch is a magnetic field detector. When the field exceeds a threshold, the reed moves, and you can think of this as a crude digital magnetic field sensor.

Now, if you include a magnetic coil along with the reed switch, adding two new leads, now you have a reed relay. This is much more of an actuator than a sensor, since it creates its own magnetic field. So switch and relay confusion can create sensor and actuator confusion.

Now let’s look at the AMR sensor schematic from the data sheet. From the outside, it may look just like a Hall Effect sensor, another sensor based on magnetic phenomena. (The field directions are apparently different, but I won’t dwell on that.)

Figure.png

 

On the left is the detector circuit. Because this constantly draws power, it must do so exceedingly sparingly. The original application for this (more on that in a moment) required no more than 500 nA; Honeywell has a couple of devices, one at 310 nA, the other at 360 nA. They claim this to be more than an order of magnitude more miserly than the lowest-power Hall Effect device, with greater sensitivity.

Once it detects the field, it flips the flop and the output value changes. Now… this output looks something like a beefy CMOS output, not like a wire in a reed switch. And if it drives a CMOS input, then this will simply look like a digital indicator with no DC load current. But if the output drives something that pulls current, then the pull-up (or the pull-down) acts as a switch that makes or breaks that circuit. In this way it more resembles a reed switch.

Here’s one other possible source of significant confusion: this is not like the magnetometer you may have in your phone. Your phone mag, like most sensors, provides continuous readings of the ambient magnetic environment. The phone can go in and interrogate the value at any time. By contrast, this AMR sensor is digital: either on or off. You can’t go in and measure the actual field. So it’s unlike many other sensors out there. That on/off characteristic is what makes it appear to be a switch – and contributes to the sensor/switch confusion.

So if you think of a reed switch as a switch that can be used as a sensor, then here you have a mag sensor that can be used as a switch.

By the way, that application I alluded to above? Apparently people were trying to monkey with electric meters using magnets to disrupt the metering. So AMR sensors (it takes two of them) are used to detect such anomalous magnets. Obviously, being in a meter, they have access to power, but it’s the power someone else is paying for, so it has to be tiny so as to be undetectable on their bill.

You can read more about Honeywell’s part in their release.

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