The white heat of technology
We report from National Instruments’ annual user conference, NIWeek 2011, held in a sizzling Austin last month.
NIWeek 2011, the National Instruments (NI) user event, took place amid an Austin heat wave, but did not need the 100 degree-temperatures to draw attendees inside the city’s convention center to the hundreds of technical sessions on offer.
NI is expanding rapidly beyond its traditional role as a test and measurement (T&M) company, although the market remains a massively important part of its income. In particular, the company is among those making a strong bid for a slice of the burgeoning embedded systems market.
Indeed, what makes NIWeek an impossible event to encompass in full is the way in which the company’s T&M and embedded activities have combined so that it now participates in so many different industries.
For example, the company’s reconfigurable I/O boards—the compact and single-board RIO series—are reaching out into control, medical, robotics, military, and aerospace markets and more beyond that. Elsewhere, NI technology continues to play a key role in the Lego Mindstorms kits that are helping to engender more K-12 interest in science and technology while also underpinning the mission control center for entrepreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX private space travel project.
Or putting it another way, ‘tentpole’ exhibits on the show floor included a spaceship, a drag racer and a real-world spin on Angry Birds!
Then there is LabVIEW, NI’s graphical system design software that has grown and grown in usage and which this year celebrated its silver anniversary. That’s a huge credit to Jeff Kodosky, its inventor and NI business and technology fellow. So was the fact that he attributed the software’s potential usefulness in today’s multicore era to “pure dumb luck”.
So, no excuses here for saying that these are just a few highlights, announcements and trends that caught our eye away from the August Texas heat wave.
Bread and butter
NI made a number of interesting announcements in the T&M arena. Indeed one of the products that it placed front and center during the opening keynote was its latest RF vector signal analyzer within its PXIe (PCI eXtensions for Instrumentation) family.
The PXIe-5665 includes much that you would expect. So, it has excellent phase noise and dynamic range, regardless of form factor and including traditional rack-and-stack instrumentation. Beyond that, it offers peer-to-peer data streaming for signal processing and a flexible multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) architecture for phase-coherent measurements. The key factor, though, is that it extends into the 14GHz range.
“The new NI PXIe-5665 VSA gives ST-Ericsson the performance and accuracy we need for 3GPP RF IC design validation in our characterization labs,” said Sylvain Bertrand, RF broadband validation manager at ST-Ericsson. “At the bottom line, the VSA reduces our system cost while increasing flexibility and decreasing physical bulk compared to our previous box solutions.”
The VSA consists of the new NI PXIe-5605 downconverter, the NI PXIe-5653 local oscillator synthesizer and the NI PXIe-5622, a 150 MS/s intermediate frequency (IF) digitizer. This package enables spectrum and wideband vector signal analysis over a frequency range of 20Hz to 14GHz with analysis bandwidths up to 50 MHz.
The combination has a third-order intercept point at +24dBm with an absolute amplitude accuracy of ±0.10dB as well as an error vector magnitude of 0.33 percent for a 256QAM-modulated signal. It also delivers low phase noise of -129dBc/Hz at a 10kHz offset at 800MHz and an average noise level of -165dBm/Hz.
In other words, NI is very much looking after its bread-and-butter market, particularly for the increasingly complex test demands in the communications design market faced by ST-Ericsson and others. The price tag, since you ask, is $50,000 with shipping set for this October.
The advance of ATML
We covered the first stirrings towards the Advanced Test Mark-Up Language (ATML) some time ago but NIWeek saw clear examples of it being introduced into commercial tools, specifically NI TestStand 2010.
An interesting presentation from James Hannah, president of Texan specialist, RF Test and Measurement Solutions noted that while ATML has been geared to the military market (and specifically by the Naval Air Systems Command), it is “just as applicable in the commercial space”.
“What ATML allows is for all these stakeholders who are trying to exchange information to do so using the same basic vocabulary,” he added.
The goals are the interoperability of test system components and the provision of a process that is self-documenting, within a language based on the XML standard already deployed across a wide number of industries.
You do still have to write up the test code modules for individual equipment and software but within the ATML wrappers you have a way of capturing numerous elements. The resulting schemas can represent information such as test programs, test asset interoperability, and unit-under-test test data, including results and diagnostics.
“So, for example, you have a way of looking at what were the circumstances under which data was collected and that kind of data is always more useful in context,” said Hannah. “You can use the configuration to better understand the scenario.”
Four particular advantages that Hannah identified were:
1. the integration of multivendor COTS test constituents;
2. the improvement of diagnostics accuracy;
3. the reduction of test time and cost; and
4. the facilitation of ATE test insertion and rehosting of test program sets.
The incorporation of the current version of ATML within the 2010 Tool Kit for TestStand will promote these objectives to that wider community. And you can learn more by consulting the relevant set of IEEE standards, 1671 (the main body of the language), 1636.1 and 1232.
As NI seeks a bigger slice of the embedded market, it is working with more and more partners, including many companies with which it can be seen as competing in some markets.
One particular challenge has been the functional verification of microcontrollers and FPGA controllers. The simulator within LabVIEW has not, to date, offered timing or event-based functionality. What it has needed is cycle accuracy so that customers can bring their VHDL code into a target FPGA with the confidence that it will work.
To that end, NI has joined up with Mentor Graphics to offer the greater simulation granularity available though ModelSim. This partnership began with the 2010 edition of LabVIEW and has been extended in 2011.
In last year’s version of the software, ModelSim could be self-invoked but the user had to provide the test stimulus. In 2011, a pallet of operations is now available directly within the LabVIEW environment to drive the simulation.
The background to the integration is, in itself, interesting in how it illustrates the way in which NI drives updates to its design software based around what are essentially user votes for the introduction of new functionality.
The view from RIO
NI’s reconfigurable I/O boards, the RIO series, have been at the forefront of the company’s drive for embedded market share. They are also clear market example of the debate between custom and COTS for an increasing number of applications, specifically those that depend heavily on custom measurement. NIWeek saw the company launch new additions at both ends of the product spectrum.
The new cRIO-908x systems are the company’s first multicore boards. These Compact RIO products are based on the Intel Core i7 dual-core processor (running at 1.33GHz) and Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGAs (up to and including the family’s LX150 device).
Peripheral connection options are available for two Gigabit Ethernet ports, a MXI Express port, four USB ports, RS232 and RS485 serial ports and a new CPU eXpansion Module that makes it possible to add custom connectivity and expansion to CompactRIO using industry standard protocols.
Target markets for the boards include rapid control prototyping, advanced motion control and machine vision.
The Single-Board RIO series is aimed at high volume, low-cost and form-factor constrained monitoring and control applications in fields such as medical and energy (opportunities in smart grid was also a major theme during NIWeek).
The incoming NI sbRIO-9605/06 devices are sized from 102.87mm x 96.52mm downwards and feature a 400MHz processor and Xilinx Spartan-6 FPGA. Built-in peripherals include RS232, CAN, USB and Ethernet, and there is also a high density, high bandwidth connecter providing direct access to the FPGA and processor.
What is particularly interesting about RIO is how it shows NI playing a very aggressive pricing game as it moves on the embedded market, reflecting an acknowledgement by senior management of just how price sensitive that market is.
As one noted to me, for the SB products, it is not just about being small to meet the design demands of more and more portable devices—“We’re looking at products that are half the size but also half the price.”
RIO also raises the interesting point of how NI is supporting many of its products through a commercial variation on Apple’s app store providing various plug-ins where it does not have the expertise itself. One of the big award winners among these apps at NIWeek 2011 was the SystemVision conneXion Client (SVX) environment developed by Mentor Graphics.
The key here is the gathering trend towards virtual prototyping—in this case, largely within mechatronics. SVX provides a workplace within which, say, the modeling and analysis of a system can be performed within Mentor’s main SystemVision product while test programs are developed and executed based on NI’s LabVIEW. And beyond that, SVX also provides access for The Mathworks’ Matlab, C++ and Java executables as well as other integration.
In itself, this reflects the need to insert test engineers much earlier in design flows across all projects, not just mechatronics. But as one of the offerings in NI’s LabVIEW Tools Network it also shows how the concept of ‘co-opertition’ as well as that of an ecosystem is becoming much more finely tuned and then distributed to the engineer in general.
These marketplaces are, for the companies that run them, very explicit illustrations of the depth of support their products can claim that go some way beyond the usual partnership agreements. Expect to see many more of them in future because of the collaborative demands being placed on design.
NIWeek 2012 has already been announced for August 6-9 at the Austin Convention Center. Details on that and presentations from this year’s event, as well as keynotes, are available at www.ni.com/niweek.