As you may recall, my December 1, 2003 column
"Do it all FPGA Design Toolkit" introduced the new all-singing-all-dancing Nexar product created by the guys and gals "Down Under" at Altium. Well, things are moving apace, because they've just announced a whole suite of what they call "LiveDesign-enabled" products.
A plethora of products
To be honest, Altium has so many things to shout about that it's difficult to know where to start. One key point to note is that they follow a philosophy of "batteries ARE included," which means that when you purchase a product, you get everything you need to do the job (I hate it when I end up having to purchase loads of "add-on" extras without which you can't do anything useful at all).
CircuitStudio 2004: Let's start with one of Altium's foundation products. This little scamp is targeted at design engineers who want a full-featured design capture and verification environment that addresses both PCB and FPGA design requirements. CircuitStudio combines hierarchic schematic capture with VHDL design entry and simulation, mixed-signal simulation, pre-layout signal integrity simulation and analysis, and an extensive range of component libraries (more than 68,000 components, 16,000 of which include simulation models).
The great thing so far as I'm concerned is that CircuitStudio contains all of the peripheral "stuff" a design engineer might need. For example, it supports basic PCB functions like defining constraints and rules, specifying the layer stack, creating the board outline, and so forth.
Protel 2004: Next we have one of Altium's flagship products. This little rapscallion is a complete board-level design environment that includes all of the capabilities needed to take a design from concept to completion. In addition to providing all of the capabilities supported by CircuitStudio, Protel 2004 includes rules-driven PCB layout and editing, topological autorouting, post-layout signal integrity analysis, and computer-aided manufacturing output capabilities.
Of particular interest to me is the fact that Protel gives you all of the stuff you need to design FPGAs and integrate them into the PCB apart from the embedded design tools featured in Altium's Nexar 2004 offering, as discussed below. For example, you can capture your FPGA design using a mixture of schematics and VHDL, simulate it, and so forth.
But the really cool thing is the tight integration between the PCB and FPGA worlds. For example, the system can automatically optimize your FPGA pin configuration at the board level for efficient routing. These pin changes can then be forward/back-annotated to the source PCB schematics and the FPGA project. There's also some mega-cool stuff with regards to Altium's NanoBoard, which we'll come to shortly.
Nexar 2004: This hot-off-the-shelf product encompasses all of the capabilities provided by CircuitStudio. On top of this you get a complete hardware/software co-design and co-verification environment for FPGAs. One great thing is that you don't need to know any VHDL in order to create a design. You can create blocks containing VHDL is you wish, but if not, you can simply create a hierarchical block-level schematic formed from the more that 1,500 generic functions supplied with the system. These range from simple gates to dataflow elements like multiplexers.
Nexar also includes a number of soft 8-bit microprocessor cores. Each of the generic functions and cores have already been synthesized and optimized with two versions available: one for an Altera FPGA and one for a Xilinx component (the system automatically selects the appropriate version depending on the target device you specify). And if you do create one or more blocks of your own VHDL, the synthesis engine supplied with Nexar will synthesize those blocks down to the targeted device.
There's full support for multi-processor designs, and right-mouse-clicking on one of the processor cores in the schematic allows you to open up an editor allowing you to create (and later modify) the C/C++ source code that is to be run on that processor. This source code will subsequently be processed by one of the compilers that are bundled with Nexar.
Just to get you off the ground running, Altium commissioned a bunch of design engineers to create around 70 reference designs and example projects, most of which take the design all the way up to the PCB level. These designs such as a processor-controlled port switcher, a classic Pak-Man look-a-like video games console, an infrared data acquisition system come bundled with Nexar. Once again, there's also some mega-cool stuff with regards to Altium's NanoBoard as discussed below.
The NanoBoard: This little rascal is first-and-foremost a hardware development board for FPGA designs that plugs into the back of your PC. A key point here is that the NanoBoard comes equipped with two daughter cards, one featuring a Spartan FPGA from Xilinx and the other carrying a Cyclone component from Altera.
The NanoBoard can be used with Protel 2004 and/or Nexar 2004. As a simple example, let's assume you've used Nexar to create a microprocessor-based FPGA design. When you are ready to rock-and-roll, everything associated with the design hardware and software will be downloaded into the NanoBoard.
In order to see what's happening in the hardware, you can include a variety of virtual instrument blocks in your schematic, including logic analyzers, frequency counters, frequency generators, and so forth. And when it comes to working out what's happening in the software, Nexar includes a variety of source-level debuggers (the actual debugger depends on the core you select) that allow you to perform all of the usual stuff that software guys and gals drool over.
You get pretty much everything you might hope for with the NanoBoard, including a powerpack with multiple plugs to support various electrical outlet configurations; a grab-bag of cables and connectors; peripherals like a LCD, LED array, switch array, keypad, and buzzer; and the list goes on.
One point of interest is that NanoBoards can be daisy-chained together. Another is that, if you have Protel 2004, you can expose the hard and soft JTAG chains in your design, pass them to an appropriate connector, and use the cables that come with the NanoBoard to connect your PCB into the board (each NanoBoard can support two PCBs).
This allows you to create relatively sophisticated multi-PCB and multi-FPGA designs. And even if your PCB design doesn't actually include an FPGA per se, you could actually use the physical FPGA on the NanoBoard's daughter card to implement a variety of virtual instruments like logic analyzers that you can then use to design, analyze, and debug your PCB.
But wait, there's more!
Just in case you are going to be anywhere around San Francisco on March 30, Altium is hosting a "Nexar Goes Live" event at electronicaUSA with the Embedded Systems Conference 2004 (they are also going to present 17 technical workshops over the 3 day conference).
Pre-registration is strongly recommended as numbers are limited. My understanding is that all attendees will receive a free 64MB USB memory stick and qualify for a draw to win a full Nexar license valued at US$7,955.
As a final aside, I am a mega-happy camper at the moment, because my very own Nexar/NanoBoard combo just arrived and is sitting in a box at my feet calling to me with its siren song ("my precious, my precious"). So as soon as I finish penning these words, I'm going to plunge into the fray and start creating my own microprocessor-based FPGA design, the results of which may well form the basis for a future column (watch this space). So it's an official "mega-cool-beans" to Altium from me. Until next time, have a good one!
Clive (Max) Maxfield is president of Techbites Interactive, a marketing consultancy firm specializing in high-tech. Author of Bebop to the Boolean Boogie (An Unconventional Guide to Electronics) and co-author of EDA: Where Electronics Begins, Max was once referred to as a "semiconductor design expert" by someone famous who wasn't prompted, coerced, or remunerated in any way.