Fish Fry Takes on DesignCon 2014
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.
Plays to its Base with AD14
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.
Intelligent Testing for Software
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.
Signal- and Power-Integrity Take Center Stage
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!
Zuken Expands Scope and Reach
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.
“Chips” are So Passé
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!
or...How to Build a Desktop Personal Supercomputer
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.
A Conversation About Mentor’s FloTHERM XT Raises the Question
Electronics power density is approaching that of a nuclear reactor core. But don’t worry – it’s still an order of magnitude less than that of a rocket nozzle.
This was the eye-opening “got your attention?” snippet in a presentation launching Mentor’s new FloTHERM XT tool.
The idea of this particular tool is to make life easier for PCB and system designers as they manage heat by bringing together EDA and MDA (Mechanical Design Automation) data early in the conceptual stage of a design to allow earlier, faster thermal simulation.
New DRAM Interfaces Keep Memory Buses Humming
A pair of new DRAM interfaces broke cover recently, and both promise to make engineers’ lives tougher – no, wait, easier! Sorry. Easier because the new interfaces make memory faster and more power-efficient (both good things), but tougher because it’ll be harder to decide which one you want. And they’re definitely mutually exclusive.
One interface comes from the Hybrid Memory Cube Consortium, a nonprofit group of DRAM makers and DRAM users (that’s a large group) that collectively work on defining how hybrid memory cubes should work. The other comes from Rambus, the decidedly for-profit company that makes its business developing and licensing interface-related IP.
Fish Fry is getting down to bare metal. We’re talking the who, what, where, and how of multi-substrate technology and checking out why the tools of today may not be up to snuff for tomorrow’s 3D IC packaging. Also this week, we look at the challenges of 100G designs and investigate why Portland, Oregon was ranked the second nerdiest city in the United States.
Cadence Rolls Sigrity and Allegro - Together
Board design and layout used to be so simple. All you had to do was make sure that all the metal parts that were supposed to touch did, and all the metal parts that were not supposed to touch didn't. Handy software tools did all the heavy lifting, and there were about a zillion different possible layout solutions - all of which worked.
That was back in the day - before all this high-speed serial nonsense. Now, thanks to our multi-gigabit lifestyle, just making the metal touch doesn't cut it anymore. We have to worry about signal integrity (SI). All those zeroes and ones flying through PCB traces start to cut corners, and our eyes slowly begin to close…
Altium Alters Course
Altium has long been a standout in the EDA industry. The company got its start as Protel - a supplier of affordable desktop PCB layout solutions. When the big EDA suppliers were exclusively selling expensive, workstation-based, enterprise-level board design systems, Altium (Protel) provided a strong, usable desktop solution for everybody else - the people who didn’t have a huge design tool budget.
As Protel evolved into Altium, their differences from the pack became more pronounced. Altium became the company of vision, with the goal of supplying the masses with a comprehensive tool suite including design capture, FPGA design, embedded software development, and trusty-old board layout. They wanted to give you an affordable desktop solution that could take your product design from soup to nuts, as long as you weren’t doing custom IC design.
Alta Devices Changes the Rules
Batteries are the bane of portable device design.
Just about every portable or mobile device or system that does anything interesting - that is, anything that would require a “real” chip like a processor or FPGA, or anything that does meaningful real-world interaction like drive a display or spin a motor - needs a significant amount of power. When you can’t plug into the wall or the grid, your options are pretty narrow. The essence of your design becomes a tradeoff between the capability and longevity of your device and battery size, weight, and cost.
We’ve all briefly considered solar, of course. The romantic idea of a perpetually powered system gleaning what it needs from nothing more than the ambient light is a powerful aphrodisiac. We want to go on a date with solar. We buy flowers. We show up at solar’s door in our spiffiest engineering outfit.
TI OMAP applications processors are powerful and flexible; this makes them well suited for navigating difficult power and thermal constraints. However, the complexity of OMAP parts is high and the ways in which to use them are varied and intricate. This article focuses specifically on ways to improve thermal performance in TI OMAP parts that limit the source of heat in integrated circuits: power. Before getting into specifics about how to manage thermal problems with OMAP, let’s remember that to manage thermal issues, there are three approaches we can take.
The Importance of Fun Projects in Engineering
Most little kids want to grow up to be cowboys, ballerinas, astronauts, or firemen. Not you. You wanted to be an engineer, didn’t you? You wanted to make stuff.
I’m willing bet you didn’t become an engineer or a programmer by accident. You chose that career. You weren’t born into it. You probably didn’t inherit your father’s engineering practice. Your family doesn’t come from a long line of engineers that expected you to uphold the family tradition. You weren’t assigned to Job Classification 35.984.001 by an immense and bureaucratic government agency.
You’re an engineer because you like it.