Altium Limited, a leading developer of Windows-based electronics design software, today announced Nexar, the industry's first product to provide a comprehensive, vendor-independent solution for system-level design on an FPGA platform. Derived from Altium's demonstrated Board-on-Chip technology, Nexar integrates hardware design tools, embedded software development tools, IP-based components, virtual instrumentation and a reconfigurable development board to allow mainstream engineers, even those without HDL experience, to interactively design and implement a complete embedded system inside an FPGA.
The benefits Nexar brings to engineers include parallel design of hardware and software, greater flexibility in hardware/software design partitioning, an integrated, FPGA vendor-independent solution for putting entire embedded systems into FPGAs, and a "live", interactive design environment for system-on-FPGA development and debug.
"Nexar is the first complete system-on-FPGA design environment built upon 'live' real-time, hands-on engineering that happens inside the physical hardware design space using an approach that maps directly to an engineer's existing knowledge of system-level design," says Nick Martin, Altium's founder and Joint CEO. "The Nexar environment will be delivered complete and ready to use, with design hardware, design software and IP all in one box. Nexar will unlock the potential of current and next-generation high-capacity, low-cost FPGAs for every engineer."
While many engineers look to FPGA technology to provide higher levels of on-chip integration and a lower risk alternative to the cost and lead time of conventional ASICs, system-level design on an FPGA platform is a difficult exercise, particularly when it comes to bringing the processor into the FPGA. Nexar changes this by taking proven board-level system design methodologies and retargeting them for FPGA architectures. Nexar also integrates hardware design and software development within a single environment to provide a total solution to systems design.
The result is a revolutionary system-on-FPGA product that will allow risk-free chip-level systems integration, practical hardware/software co-design, a complete systems-level development environment for FPGA-based embedded design and introduces an interactive design methodology called LiveDesign that is accessible to mainstream engineers.
Introducing a new IP delivery model
At the system level, Nexar provides a schematic-based design methodology to define system connectivity. The reason being that graphical schematic-based capture is more efficient for connecting functional blocks than HDLs and allows complex systems to be created quickly at the component level.
Schematic design is facilitated in Nexar by the inclusion of extensive libraries of royalty-free, pre-synthesized, pre-verified IP components, including a range of processor cores, that can be simply dropped onto the schematic and connected together to form the system hardware. This is analogous to the way designers currently work at the board-level with physical, 'off-the-shelf' components.
Nexar components are processed for a variety of target FPGA architectures from multiple vendors. This allows design portability between FPGA device families and ensures a flexible vendor-independent approach to FPGA design. Nexar automatically and transparently selects the correct component model for the target architecture during system synthesis. As a result, designs can be synthesised very quickly because the component IP does not need to be reprocessed during synthesis.
Nexar's component system provides a novel and secure framework for FPGA IP delivery that avoids the security problems associated with supplying IP as HDL source code.
Seeing inside the FPGA with virtual instrumentation
Along with IP components, Nexar includes a library of IP-based virtual instruments such as logic analysers, frequency counters/generators and IO monitors that can be incorporated into the design at the schematic level to facilitate system debugging.
Like the IP components, the virtual instruments are supplied as pre-synthesized models that allow them to be used across FPGA target architectures. These instruments have on-screen front panels analogous to their physical counterparts to provide an intuitive way for engineers to examine the working of their circuit, and to 'see' inside the FPGA during the design process.
A reconfigurable hardware platform
Integral to Nexar is a versatile FPGA-based development board called a NanoBoard that provides a reconfigurable platform for implementing and debugging the design. The NanoBoard is connected to the engineer's PC and uses JTAG-based communications to both download the design to the on-board FPGA, and to interact with processor cores and instruments in the design once it has been downloaded.
Target FPGAs are housed on plug-in daughter boards to allow easy retargeting of designs. Multiple NanoBoards can be chained together to facilitate the design of complex multi-FPGA systems, and can accommodate the inclusion of end-user boards into the system for final production PCB testing and debugging.
Integrated software development
To make it easy to develop system software, Nexar includes a complete set of software development tools for all supplied processor cores. Using Altium's Viper reconfigurable compiler technology, Nexar provides high-quality code development and debugging that is fully integrated with the hardware development environment.
Once the target design has been downloaded to the NanoBoard, all processors in the design can be controlled and debugged from within the Nexar system. This enables software development to take place directly on the target hardware from early in the design cycle, supporting parallel development of hardware and software. Hardware designers can download their designs to the NanoBoard for interactive debugging during development, and software designers can develop their program code directly on the 'real' hardware from early in the design cycle.
Because hardware can be updated with the same ease as the software, Nexar allows more flexible design partitioning. Implementing the design on the NanoBoard means a physical prototype isn't required to support completion of the debug process, delaying the need to finalize hardware until later in the development cycle.
Nexar's interactive system design environment and ability to directly connect designers and developers with their designs allows engineers to adopt a very 'hands on' approach to the development process. Altium calls this design methodology LiveDesign.
Unlike conventional electronics design flows, LiveDesign-enabled tools represent a new methodology for hardware/software system design flows. The LiveDesign electronics development platform supports real-time on-the-fly design and debug of a physical circuit and has the potential to significantly effect the way electronic systems and products are designed with benefits for design speed, flow, quality and cost.
LiveDesign also allows system implementation for debug purposes, minimizing the reliance on time-consuming system-level simulation required by other design flows. There is little time or cost penalty involved in multiple design iterations, leaving engineers free to try different design solutions without the need to physically manufacture prototype boards.
Nexar has wide applicability across the electronics industry, and will be particularly beneficial in industries such as automotive, industrial control, telecoms and datacoms infrastructure, and non-electronics consumer products such as whitegoods, where product value is relatively high, but market size doesn't allow conventional ASIC development.
Nexar will provide immediate benefits to:
* Engineers who routinely develop digital systems using off-the-shelf silicon devices - Nexar provides an intuitive method for migrating board-level systems into device-level designs;
* FPGA designers looking for an easier way to embed soft processor cores into their designs - Nexar provides a reconfigurable development environment, the tools and IP to support complete systems implementation;
* Hardware & software engineers designing low- to medium-complexity embedded microcontroller applications - Nexar integrates hardware and software development flows from the first line of code through board-level implementation.
Nexar represents a new way of approaching digital design. In particular Nexar will provide:
* Shorter embedded systems development cycles by enabling parallel design of hardware and software;
* Greater flexibility in hardware software design partitioning;
* An integrated solution for putting entire embedded systems into FPGAs;
* The benefits of chip-level integration to all designers, regardless of their HDL knowledge and expertise;
* A personal ASIC alternative to high-cost factory ASIC implementation;
* An FPGA vendor-independent solution to systems design;
* A "live", interactive environment for system-on-FPGA development and debug.
Pricing and availability
Nexar 2004 will be available for shipment during the first quarter of the 2004 calendar year at an anticipated list price of US$7,995. For more product information, visit www.altium.com/nexar/ or contact your local Altium sales and support center.