True software instrument set to revolutionize RF test

August 15, 2012 // By Jean-Pierre Joosting
Moore’s law has been a driving force in electronics since the first integrated circuit. However, test and measurement has not benefitted to the same degree — largely dominated by vendor-specific test boxes and modules. Software-based instruments exist today but such instruments are still designed with a view to the vendor-specific test paradigm and remain programmable in a limited sense. Four key factors define the effect of Moore’s law: smaller size, faster operation, lower power consumption and higher integration with increased functionality. This process is illustrated by the evolution of the first wireless handset through to today’s smartphones.

Ideally a software instrument comprises code that defines the instrument, which runs on a common silicon fabric. Such an instrument is completely programmable and can reuse common code blocks that represent certain functions. Other code blocks can be added to integrate other software instruments. Software instruments are the code and vice versa. Completely customizable, software instruments can be integrated and configured as needed to address a specific test scenario. Code is simply loaded onto the silicon as required.

Two key tends are also pushing for faster test, those of increasing complexity and data rates. Complexity increases the number of test scenarios that need to be covered thereby increasing test times. Faster data rates are making it harder to find anomalies such as glitches. The need for faster and more intelligent test is required to address these needs.

Standards are also posing problems. Firstly, there are too many of them and new standards keep emerging. Engineers are faced with maintaining interoperability with earlier standards while trying to deal with the latest and emerging standards. Further, engineers are being pushed to develop devices and systems while the standards are still being laid down. This parallel development requires test vendors to be ahead of the standards curve, a position that is extremely difficult to maintain. Designers still have to wait for test vendors to come out with a box or module to address their requirements. Some are forced to get into the business of building custom test instruments, a time consuming process that detracts from the core project goals.

With a true software instrument, engineers could customize the instruments needed to a specific task and load the code onto a silicon fabric. Software reuse would reduce the programming burden significantly and still allow test to be faster, take less space and be specific to the requirements of the design flow.

To address today’s test bottlenecks in RF, National Instruments claim to offer the

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