Sights on Systems

Mentor Elevates PCB Game

by Kevin Morris

For decades, the PCB design tools competition has been a board game. The scope of the problem was the design of a single PCB, and the competitors - Mentor, Cadence, Zuken, Altium/Protel, and the rest - all battled for supremacy with the scope, features, power, and cost of their solutions. The market for board tools actually got a little boring for years, with the major players competing mainly on cost and incumbency in the high-end (enterprise) level and in the low-cost (desktop) markets.

In the past few years, however, the battle has been heating up again. Demands on even “ordinary” board design have grown, as signal- and power-integrity became common problems with higher speed components, and IC packaging and mounting technology caused new challenges for layout. As a result, “desktop” tools began to inherit many of the features associated with “enterprise” tools. Enterprise design tool suites had to once again scramble to differentiate themselves and justify their significantly higher costs.

 

Makers Conquer the World

From Artisan to Arduino at World Maker Faire

by Kevin Morris

We walk past a small booth at the 2014 World Maker Faire, and a young boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, jumps out to get our attention. He is so excited we can barely understand what he is saying. He wants us to see his sneakers - adorned with an array of LEDs giving a high-energy light show that would make any grade-schooler envious. He explains that he programmed the lights himself. He is ecstatic, and his enthusiasm radiates into the crowd. “Can I sign you up? Can I sign you up?” He pulls up a registration form on a laptop computer. We have no idea what he wants us to sign up for.

A look inside the sneakers reveals an Arduino board with its obligatory Atmel AVR microcontroller. Sitting on the table nearby is another laptop - running a kid-friendly drag-and-drop programming interface that allows kids to write code to create their own shoe-wear lighting spectacular. You want blinky shoes? You gotta program them first. It’s gonna be FUN!

 

Going Vertical

Ecosystem for Interposer-based Design?

by Kevin Morris

We’ve talked a lot lately in these pages about the impending demise of Moore’s Law. Consensus is that, somewhere around the half-century mark, one of the most astounding prophecies in human history will have finally run its course. Next year, we’ll have a round of FinFET devices that will be so exotic and expensive that only a handful of companies will be able to use them. In the decade that follows, we may or may not reach 10nm and 7nm production - using either esoteric unlikelies like EUV or extreme-brute-force multi-patterning techniques - to solve just some of the multitude of barriers to continued downscaling.

Sci-fi techniques like carbon nanotubes, graphene-based devices, quantum computing, and that other-one-you-read-about are so far from production practicality that we may not see any of them in widespread use in our lifetimes. While incredible research shows great promise for many of these ideas, they are all back in the silicon-equivalent of the early 1960s in their evolution. The time and engineering it will take them to catch up with and eventually surpass what we can do with silicon today is substantial.

 

New Approaches to Old Problems

A Hot DATE in Dresden

by Dick Selwood

The Dresden conference centre was designed to represent a stark modern contrast to the restored Baroque buildings of the old town of Dresden. For some reason, the architects decided to build a curved building with one floor on a slope, cutting through other, flat, floors. The entrance is up a long flight of stairs, exposed to the wind and rain blowing across the river Elbe. The conference rooms are all provided with wonderful glass walls overlooking the river, which have to be blacked out if you want to be able to see the information projected onto the screen.

However, it is the the main conference venue for Silicon Saxony, a “cluster” of high tech companies ranging from semiconductor manufacturers Global Foundries and Infineon to a wide range of supporting and related businesses: over 300 companies are part of the network. And it is where, in alternate years, the academic community engaged in EDA make their spring pilgrimage to the DATE Conference.

 

Exposed by Tools

The Dark Side of Reporting Features

by Bryon Moyer

Do you like to be watched while you work?

Most people don’t. There’s this fine line between making sure that stakeholders know about your progress on a project and having those stakeholders all up in your business all the time. The latter is micromanagement, and no one likes that.

More and more EDA tools are being provisioned with management and reporting features. These make it easier for you as a designer to let your supervisor or project manager know what you’ve accomplished and what remains – and you spend less time writing up those annoying status reports.

 

Board Revolution

Part 2 - Mentor Xpedition

by Kevin Morris

Mentor Graphics is number one in PCB design tools. They want me to tell you that. They want me to tell you that - even after reading about my disdain for marketing the market share of your product. So - there ya go. They’re number one. Why does this matter? Well, they rightfully point out that nobody ever got fired for buying the leading tool, and that EDA can be a fickle business. If an EDA tool is number one (they observe), the company selling it probably cares about it deeply and will want to go the distance to support you and make you happy. Point taken.

However, since we’re all engineers here, the thing that matters the most - by FAR - is whether the tool is robust and reliable in helping you get your engineering job done. In this case - that means helping you be as productive as possible designing the heck out of your PCB. Luckily, besides being number one, Mentor has done a very respectable job of that as well. Now, however, they think that’s not enough. They’re launching a big ’ol ambitious program to upgrade their PCB design suite - in a clear effort to fend off the similarly ambitious competitors (Cadence, Zuken, Altium, et al) who are coming full-tilt right at them.

 

Board Revolution

Part 1 - Cadence Allegro TimingVision

by Kevin Morris

They say timing is everything, and when designing digital electronics, “they” are absolutely correct. Unless we can get the timing right on every path in our project, we’re going nowhere fast. Timing closure runs the gamut of our engineering tasks - from the inside of our FPGAs through our boards and out into the world.

With the proliferation of high-speed interfaces into common standards like DDR, PCI and others, even “normal” PCB design can involve complex timing issues, and resolving all of them at once can be a bit like squeezing a balloon. We have paths that need to meet minimum or maximum delay specifications, groups of paths that must be equal length, differential pairs that must be routed together, and phase alignment corrections that must be applied. And, all of these need to be handled during PCB routing - at the same time that we’re struggling with things like getting from point A to point B, minimizing the number of vias and layers, navigating our way out of complex BGA pin fields, and applying our sense of aesthetics to our work.

 

Ultraconductors

More Than Superconductors?

by Bryon Moyer

Last year, I delved a little into the world of superconductors and their bizarre circuits. In poking about afterwards, I ran across something called an “ultraconductor.” I wondered if this was a brand of superconductor – it wasn’t. So what is this thing?

Turns out, it’s not just one thing. I found two threads to pull, and they were different. One led to an organic approach – which would sound pretty danged interesting – but it is not being actively pursued at the moment. (I’m not sure why; for now it’s an academic question, and I’ll tackle it if we ever come back to it.)

The other thread related to some work done at the Los Alamos National Labs (LANL). One Dr. James Maxwell was leading a project to improve conductance beyond what metal alloys could provide.

 

DesignCon and Beyond

Fish Fry Takes on DesignCon 2014

by Amelia Dalton

The lights: Fluorescent. The carpet: Padded. The lanes: Routed. Where in the world could Fish Fry be? DesignCon 2014, of course. In this special DesignCon episode of Fish Fry, we launch ourselves into the multi-faceted world of electronic design with a couple of interesting interviews. My first guest is none other than Kilopass CEO Charlie Cheng. Charlie and I get down to the nuts and bolts of non-volatile memory, and Charlie gives me his take on where he thinks the technology is headed over the next few years. Next, I chat with Mark Toth (CadSoft) about CadSoft's ubiquitous EAGLE PCB Design Software, and I get the inside scoop on the results of their recent PCB design survey.

 

Altium Bends Over Backward

Plays to its Base with AD14

by Kevin Morris

The headline new feature for Altium’s newly released Altium Designer 14 (AD 14) is “Rigid-Flex Support.” True, rigid-flex is there, and it’s cool, but the headline might lead the casual reader to miss some very important changes that are happening at Altium. Altium has a new focus and a new mission these days. The Altium folks are going back to their roots, playing to their base, and trying to re-establish a strong partnership with the engineers the company was created to serve - the common, hard-working, in-the-trenches, everyday designers who are trying to create cool stuff but who don’t have the resources for the fantastically-expensive, enterprise-oriented PCB solutions from the likes of Mentor and Cadence.

For the past several years, Altium has been a bit like that genius ADD kid in the back of the classroom - full of brilliant ideas, but not at all focused on what is going on in class at the time. Altium has suffered from, if anything, an excess of forward-thinking vision - leading their customers with fascinating new design paradigm ideas and features, but failing them somewhat in delivering rock-solid implementation of the day-to-day, pedestrian PCB design capabilities needed for plain-old place-and-route. The rub on the street about Altium was that they were too focused on the flashy and not enough on fixing old bugs.

 

Shift Left

Intelligent Testing for Software

by Dick Selwood

Everyone knows that, when developing software, you are going to have to spend a lot of time testing: identifying the bugs that are causing the software to fail, correcting the bugs, and then testing again. This phase has been estimated to take as much as 70% of the software development time for an embedded product. Last week, I attended a conference on intelligent testing, expecting to hear from a range of speakers on how their tools, research, or consultancy could improve or shorten the testing cycle. And, indeed, there was some discussion of specific tools – as we will see later. But two papers were different. The most pertinent was by Jim Thomas, a consultant who has a background of test tool development.

 

It's an Analog World - Even for Digital Folks

Signal- and Power-Integrity Take Center Stage

by Kevin Morris

Let’s face it, we went to school and studied logic design because we really didn’t want to deal with analog stuff. As digital designers, we prefer our signals to have nice discrete values and to stay out of those fuzzy grey areas. We may have even settled into a clean, orderly area of engineering like FPGA design - just to preserve a firewall between us and that nasty curvy stuff.

Then, of course, our arrogant “need for speed” brought us to things like multi-gigabit serial interfaces. Suddenly, what should have been a well-behaved sequence of zeroes and ones took on a suspicious likeness to those wavy analog lines we were trying to avoid in the first place. We justified it by pointing to the benefits of getting rid of all those unsightly parallel busses. Still, terms like “eye diagram” entered our vernacular - and the next thing you know, somebody was talking about signal integrity. Yuk!

 

Going Global

Zuken Expands Scope and Reach

by Kevin Morris

Most of us have heard of Zuken. They have always been one of the quiet companies who made PCB layout software - and who was not Mentor or Cadence. If we decided to upgrade our board design capabilities, they were on the list of suppliers we'd consider. Nothing about Zuken particularly grabbed our attention other than the assumption that they could help us bring some order to blank FR4 just as well as the next guy.

In Japan, however, Zuken was certainly not just one of the pack. In Japan, Zuken has had dominant market share for years. If you designed boards in Japan and used anything else, you just might be eyed with some suspicion. Zuken was founded in 1976 and has over a thousand employees worldwide, so they're hardly a new kid on the block, and they are a substantial EDA company by any measure. Being headquartered in Japan, however (and listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange), they don't show up on radar quite the same way as most of the rest of the EDA industry.

 

Systems on Interposer

“Chips” are So Passé

by Kevin Morris

The term “SoC” has been in use for about two decades now. Systems-on-Chip were a great idea, of course. Over the years, as we marched forward with Moore’s Law, steadily reducing the number of chips in our systems, we could see the finish line ahead of us somewhere. Eventually, we reasoned, this increased integration would allow us to put our entire system on a single chip. Sure enough, for many of us, our design elements dwindled from dozens to single digits, and ultimately approached that magical vanishing point - unity - one chip to rule them all.

Eventually, we rationalized victory. The marketers amongst us were all too excited to be the first to proclaim, “We are doing System on Chip!” Banners were waved and bandwagons opened their admission gates. We were no longer simply Chip designers, we were SoC designers! Strike up the band! The future is here! We are now in the SoC business!

 

The Condensed Guide to Silicon Circuit Boards

or...How to Build a Desktop Personal Supercomputer

by Bob Conn

Foreword by Kevin Morris

Have you noticed that there is no Moore’s Law for circuit boards?  Sure, we have seen some gradual improvement in PCB technology over the past couple of decades, but we’re still pushing FR4 around pretty much the same way we always have, and the PCB is now a huge limiting factor in our ability to miniaturize our systems and make them more reliable. 

Is it getting to be time to ditch the FR4?

Bob Conn is a fascinating guy – what many of us in engineering would think of as a “renaissance man.”  We are excited to present the first in a series of articles by Bob about silicon circuit boards (SiCBs).  Bob will take us through the practicalities of using SiCBs in the current world and give us insight in to how SiCBs may evolve as viable solutions for an increasingly large segment of our design work.

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