The Next Big Thing?
The scene: A hotel breakfast room. There are several groups, mostly of men wearing the same logo-marked polo shirt, or matching ties, speaking English and having breakfast. Out of one group comes, "Their BIOS was rubbish, so we had to write a completely new one." Welcome to Nuremberg during embedded world.
For three days all the hotels are packed, despite having doubled their room rates. The U-Bahn (Metro) adds extra services from the city centre to the Exhibition site, and over 900 exhibitors are visited by more than 20,000 people. Amongst them are the editors, rushing around to their long list of press conferences and press briefings. During three days I spoke to around 4% of the exhibitors in formal meetings and a few more in informal sessions. I also received many, many press releases associated with products being launched at the show. (As I write, my inbox is being flooded with Mobile World Congress releases - in fact, so many, they are even overtaking the spam.) What follows is my attempt to capture the main trends in embedded systems based on those meetings and on the way in which companies were branding their booths.
New Boards, Power Electronics, and Software Tinkerers
Now bear in mind that I am a mature Englishman, so when I talk boards I am not looking at the sort of thing that you see on the US Pacific coast and that the Beach Boys sang about. (There, that rather demonstrated "maturity". For those of you wondering what I am on about, the Beach Boys were a Californian 1960s band who sang about surfing, cars and girls – very exotic in early 1960's, pre-swinging London.)
Instead we are looking at Raspberry Pi and its rivals, which have sparked off a whole new wave of tinkerers - a new type of tinkerer, who plays with hardware at a module level and with software. A distinctive feature of these board families is that they all have developed a strong, web-based community, where community members share projects, problems and successes.
Debuggers and Boards and IDEs! Oh, My!
If this is February it must be Nürnberg. Or Barcelona. Either way, it’s the month when embedded developers head to Central Europe. (The ones with travel budgets, anyway.) And it’s the month when embedded vendors roll out their latest toys. It’s like attending Milan Fashion Week or the Paris Auto Show except… you know… less glamorous.
Two of my favorite announcements this week came from smallish companies, and both have been in the business for a while. And both have to do with tools. Software-development tools. The things that make the embedded world go ’round.
Whoa, That's a Big Piece of Equipment You've Got There
Fresh from the land of eye diagrams, super-fast SerDes, and more board design software than you'll ever need, it's Fish Fry! This week we investigate some of the biggest themes presented at this year's DesignCon in Santa Clara, CA. Our first guest is Rohde & Schwarz CEO Scott Bausback who joins Fish Fry to help us understand the ever-evolving world of test and measurement, explain how IOT will affect the evolution of T&M, and what it's like to build a recording studio in your house. Also this week, we chat with Stephanie Jarno from HUBER+SUHNER about how today's wicked-fast SerDes speeds are changing the demands on our cables and connectors.
The concept of designing, validating and then reusing functional blocks in integrated circuits (ICs) has been entrenched in the electronics industry for decades. Software development has a similar model utilizing libraries of common function calls or objects. However, the concept of reusing printed circuit board (PCB) modules is much less common. Reusing PCB modules for common or commodity functions offers considerable advantages, for example avoiding potential signal integrity or thermal problems, by utilizing circuit data whose performance has been proven in previous generations of products. The key to successful modular circuit design is a data management system that can store and control access to modular reusable blocks, manage information that is critical to design reuse, such as the layer structure of a routed block, and interface easily with the circuit design software. The end result is a reduction in time during schematic capture and PCB design, along with fewer design errors, making it possible to bring quality products to market faster.
Saleae Logic Analyzer is a New Take on Lab Equipment
“Oh, and one more thing…”
You can almost hear the ghost of Steve Jobs introducing the Saleae Logic Pro 16, gesturing to a rear-projection screen as he slips the device out of his pocket. It’s that kind of logic analyzer.
Huh, what? Trendy, stylish, desirable test instruments?
Believe it. The Logic Pro 16 is a hardware logic analyzer that even a design aesthete would love. It’s the lab instrument for the SoHo/Noe Valley/Pearl district crowd. And I have one. And no, you can’t borrow it.
Fifty Years of Electronics in Munich
Electronica, the enormous "trade fair for electronic components, systems, applications and services", to quote the organisers, was nearly a month ago. So why have I waited this long to report on it? Mainly because I needed the time to recover and to try to get a perspective on what I saw and heard during three days packed with meetings interspersed with long walks.
Looking back to the year electronica first took place, 1964 was the year that I Want to Hold Your Hand triggered Beatle-mania (and the Rolling Stones released their first album), US President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, and the US began ramping up the forces in Viet-Nam. In Russia, Khrushchev was deposed as Soviet leader, and, in Britain, Harold Wilson became Prime Minister. China, France and America conducted atom bomb tests, and the second Vatican Council replaced Latin with local languages for Roman Catholic church services. Moog launched his music synthesiser. General Douglas McArthur and Cole Porter both died and Michelle Obama and Sarah Palin were both born. If most of this (except the births) means nothing or little to you, you are probably too young to understand.
Are You Ready for Tomorrow?
There are times when you shouldn't really think too deeply about things. Last week I was driving along the motorway from London to Winchester. While accelerating to overtake, I saw the engine pass through 4,000 rpm, and I wondered about each piston moving from stationary at top dead centre to stationary at bottom dead centre and then back to top dead centre 50 times a second. (Geeky? Moi?) Sadly, I can't perform in my head the sum that would calculate the speed at which each piston was moving at its fastest, but it must be pretty speedy, and that cycle of movement would be putting all sorts of stresses on all sorts of metal parts. I eased my mental stress by consoling myself that, at least in my 15-year-old Golf, there wasn't software running on silicon to control the engine.
So I didn't have to worry that the software could be like that in the Toyotas that may have suffered unintended acceleration. There has been no resolution on whether the software caused the issue. The evidence of software guru Michael Barr was so damning that, while he couldn't say that the software caused the incident, he had the Toyota lawyers worried. Add to this the way in which the opposing legal team were being successful in throwing dust into the eyes of the jury and sowing doubt into their minds, and it is clear why Toyota settled out of court.
To Grandma's PCB We Go
This week’s Fish Fry is all about your next PCB design. From power integrity to mixed-signal place and route, from Gerber files to schematics, from output pins over the FR4 and through the vias, to grandma’s house we go. My first guest this week is Greg Lebsack from Tanner EDA, and we discuss why you want a digital place and route tool, integrating ye ol’ analog into your next design, and what Tanner EDA brings to the mixed-signal party. Next up, we bring in Hemant Shah from Cadence Design Systems to chat about one of the biggest pain points of PCB design: the hand off to manufacturing. Hemant and I investigate a rapidly expanding industry consortium that is hoping to change all of that awful file hand off once and for all.
Mentor Elevates PCB Game
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.
From Artisan to Arduino at World Maker Faire
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!
Ecosystem for Interposer-based Design?
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.
A Hot DATE in Dresden
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.
The Dark Side of Reporting Features
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.
Part 2 - Mentor Xpedition
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.