In 1965, Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel, stated that the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every year since 1958 when the integrated circuit was invented.
Five years later this observation became known as Moore’s Law, which projected the doubling of components every 18 months. This law has driven tremendous increases in performance and reductions in cost for electronics products across every industry for more than half a century. Unfortunately, automated test systems based on traditional instruments have not kept up with Moore’s Law, making it difficult for these systems to scale to meet cost and performance requirements.
In contrast, it is common for automated test systems that apply Moore’s Law through the use of software-defined, modular instrumentation to see improvements of 10X or more in size, cost, and power reductions. Harnessing the latest PC processors, field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), and memory architectures for instrumentation is not a trivial task, however, without the proper ecosystem of software and hardware components for test. NI recognizes this challenge and has continually invested in delivering a complete platform designed to use the latest PC-based technologies while ensuring rapid system development and long-term stability. In general, NI believes the four essential elements to help engineers achieve Moore’s Law for test are graphical system design software, PXI modular instrumentation, FPGA-based reconfigurable I/O (RIO), and integrated timing and synchronization.
Table 1. Moore’s Law has made a significant impact on the performance of PXI-based modular instrumentation since it was introduced in 1997.
1. 1. Graphical System Design Software
System-level abstraction of complex software and hardware architectures is critical to applying Moore’s Law for test. NI released LabVIEW software in 1986 to provide system-level abstraction of instrument control applications using PCs and traditional box instruments. The unique capability of LabVIEW was the graphical representation of the program and correlation between the front panel user interface controls, variables, and data flow in the application. These fundamental elements still hold true today in LabVIEW 2010 and the more than 8,000 instrument drivers available on the NI Instrument Driver Network (ni.com/idnet).
Incorporating the latest commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) technology in test systems today is much more complex than instrument control. Multicore programming, FPGA-enabled instruments, real-time OSs, peer-to-peer data transfer, model-based testing, and high-speed streaming to redundant array of inexpensive disks (RAID) storage solutions are just a few of the latest examples in which LabVIEW leads the industry in removing complexity while delivering optimized performance. Unlike traditional text-based programming languages, LabVIEW has always been geared toward engineers and scientists looking to apply the latest commercial technologies in their automated test applications. Beyond the built-in hardware connectivity libraries, advanced analysis and reporting tools, and 3D user interface development, the continual NI investment in LabVIEW helps you keep up with the pace of Moore’s Law for test with minimal user effort.
Figure 1. NI LabVIEW graphical system design software provides features, such as multicore optimization and Timed Loop constructs, for keeping up with the pace of performance gains in COTS products as a result of Moore’s Law.
2. 2. PXI Modular Instrumentation
Building automated test systems to verify the performance and quality of the latest electronic devices requires a combination of high-performance instrumentation, data buses, processing, and data storage solutions in a compact and reliable form factor. NI introduced PXI in 1997 to meet these requirements and evolve with the advancements of Moore’s Law. For example, the first PXI systems sold in 1998 offered a Pentium MMX 233 MHz processor with up to 128 MB RAM; today’s PXI systems feature a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with up to 8 GB RAM. This represents a more than 134X improvement in GFLOPS processing performance in the same form factor. An added benefit is the fact that the systems are still backward-compatible. This is not by accident but rather by design because the PXI specification strongly emphasizes long-term backward compatibility and upgradability while incorporating the latest COTS technologies. The successful adoption of the open PXI standard now includes more than 100,000 PXI test system deployments with more than 600,000 installed modules provided by more than 50 different vendors. This level of interoperability and an offering of more than 1,500 PXI products highlight the success that you can achieve when combining the innovation from Moore’s Law with an open industry platform for automated test.
Figure 2. The performance density of the NI PXIe-5630 6 GHz vector network analyzer is a prime example of the benefits of Moore’s Law for test.
3. 3. FPGA-Based Reconfigurable I/O
While multicore processing has sustained Moore’s Law to overcome the potential slowdown in processing capabilities due to the power and thermal challenges of processor clock rates above 3 GHz, the FPGA is another next-generation processing core that is critical to the future of automated test. In fact, FPGAs can now deliver even greater concurrency and processing performance for automated test systems than PC processors. NI has been a leader in providing user-configurable FPGA capabilities for engineers and scientists since the company introduced its first R Series products in 2003. Today, NI offers multiple FPGA architectures and form factors in R Series and CompactRIO hardware as well as the NI FlexRIO instrumentation platform, which features a user-definable, front-end adapter module architecture. Looking ahead, NI has demonstrated next-generation LabVIEW system design tools for quickly deploying LabVIEW code to multiple hardware targets by simply dragging and dropping code across the graphically represented system. The ease and convenience of such a solution will help you keep up with Moore’s Law for your test systems.
Figure 3. NI FlexRIO represents the vision of software-defined, modular instrumentation for maximum performance and flexibility by offering an open, onboard FPGA programmable with LabVIEW in addition to standard and user-definable front-end adapter modules.
4. 4. Integrated Timing and Synchronization
The final component of an automated test system infrastructure that is necessary to take full advantage of Moore’s Law is integrated timing and synchronization. The combination of software and hardware in automated test systems requires a platform that can easily and accurately represent the software and hardware timing of such a system where precise instrumentation handshaking, protocol synchronization, and real-time determinism are required.
LabVIEW has many mechanisms to uniquely deal with time. The Timed Loop structure, for instance, is a well-defined API for specifying timing constraints in applications. In addition, the Timed Loop can be used to configure priority, processor affinity, and timing sources. You can synchronize multiple Timed Loops within a single system or as part of a distributed real-time system. With the Timed Loop, LabVIEW users can apply the same programming paradigm to develop code that scales from milliseconds on a desktop PC to nanoseconds on an FPGA backplane.
Similarly, PXI provides the essential integrated timing and synchronization features for modular instrumentation that can be enabled using LabVIEW. The PXI chassis contains the high-performance backplane, which includes the PCI and PCI Express buses along with the core timing and trigger buses such as a dedicated 10 MHz and 100 MHz system reference clock, PXI trigger bus, and star trigger bus to address the need for advanced timing, synchronization, and sideband communication.
5. Moore’s Law Beyond 2010
Intel expects computing performance advancements in accordance with Moore’s Law to continue beyond the next 10 years, with some experts predicting that nanowire architectures and quantum computing will accelerate the pace of computing even faster than Moore’s Law. NI is prepared to help you ensure that your test strategies can take advantage of all the benefits of Moore’s Law by offering the most complete software-defined instrumentation ecosystem for all of your measurement needs.
Richard McDonell is a senior group manager for automated test at National Instruments. He holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from Texas A&M University.
This article first appeared in the Q4 2010 issue of Instrumentation Newsletter.