Good Grief! My brain is reeling with the effort of trying to wrap itself around all of the cool things coming out of Altium at the moment.
Just to refresh our memories before we plunge into the cool new stuff, Altium is promoting the concept of LiveDesign. This is an integrated electronics system design methodology that allows you to run real software on real hardware in real-time from the very beginning of the design cycle. Altium is fielding a variety of LiveDesign-enabled products, including Protel 2004, Nexar 2004, and their NanoBoard development board for FPGAs.
Protel 2004 is a complete board-level design solution that takes you from concept to implementation. Of particular interest to me is that Protel allows you to place an FPGA in your board-level schematic (you can of course have multiple FPGAs in your design), "push" down into this FPGA, and describe its contents as a block-level schematic.
If you wish, you can use "black box" blocks and specify their contents in RTL. But for the majority of the time you will be content to use the supplied library of more than 1,500 "components," which range from primitive gates to counters, adders, and more complex functions.
One really cool thing about this environment is that it features automated FPGA pin optimization and pin synchronization between PCB and FPGA projects, all of which can save you huge amounts of time and effort.
If your FPGA designs require the use of embedded processor cores, then you need to step up to Altium's Nexar product. Like Protel, this allows you to describe your FPGA design as a block-level schematic. However, Nexar extends Protel's capabilities with the inclusion of a suite of royalty-free soft microprocessor cores and peripherals, along with a fully integrated software development environment.
Last but not least (for the purposes of these discussions), we have the NanoBoard development board. This sophisticated little scamp works with both Protel and Nexar. Furthermore, the NanoBoard is vendor-independent, because it supports multiple target FPGAs in the form of swappable daughter cards. This allows you to change the type of FPGA you are implementing your designs on just by plugging in a different daughter card.
Mega-cool new "stuff"
Actually, there are so many ramifications to the following, that it takes some mental gymnastics to place everything in context. First, as of November 1, 2004, Altium has added 12 new NanoBoard daughter cards covering Actel, Altera, and Xilinx devices (both CPLDs and FPGAs) to their repertoire, thereby bringing the current offering up to 16 plug-in cards. These new devices go all the way up to Xilinx Vertex-II Pro with their embedded PowerPC hard microprocessor cores.
Next, Altium has announced a new universal JTAG interface for use with both Protel and Nexar. This is really cool, because it attaches to the parallel port of your computer and supports both the Altera ByteBlaster and Xilinx ISE standards. This means that you can use the LiveDesign tools with virtually any 3rd-party FPGA development board including the ones you currently have lying around in your office. (Altium provides support for specific 3rd-party development boards on its website in the form of downloadable constraint files, documentation, and example projects.)
But wait, there's more! For $49, you can get a 30-day unlimited Protel-Nexar license including the new universal JTAG interface that allows you to try these LiveDesign tools with your existing development board. But what really makes my toes curl with excitement is that, for only $99, you can get both the 30-day unlimited Protel-Nexar licence AND a low-cost FPGA development board. And if, at the end of the 30-day trial, you decide not to purchase the LiveDesign tools, this evaluation board will happily work with your existing Altera and Xilinx design tools.
Truth to tell, the reason I'm so excited by this low-cost evaluation board is that my own unit literally arrived 10 minutes ago as I pen these words. In fact I just took a picture of it with our office digital camera as shown below:
Altium's low-cost evaluation board
This little rapscallion boasts an on-board FPGA (you can select different flavors of the board targeting different FPGA devices such as Xilinx Spartan-3 and Altera Cyclone); an on-board audio system with dual (stereo) miniature speakers; a six-digit 7-segment display; an 8-bit LED array and 8-bit DIP switch; a variety of ports (serial RS232, VGA, PS2 Mouse, PS2 keyboard); and the list goes on.
Give me strength! My fingers are getting tired. In the case of user-defined "black boxes" containing RTL, the original Protel and Nexar tools supported only VHDL. But Altium is expanding their LiveDesign capabilities to include support for Verilog. This means that you can now use any combination of block diagram (schematic), VHDL, and Verilog to capture your FPGA design descriptions.
At the time of this writing, you will have to use your existing synthesis and simulation engines for the Verilog portions of your design (the LiveDesign tools include native VHDL simulation and synthesis capabilities). However, the LiveDesign tools transparently interface with 3rd-party simulation and synthesis engines such as the ModelSim and ActiveHDL simulators and Synplicity, Altera Quartus, and Xilinx XST synthesis engines (Altium says that native Verilog simulation and synthesis support will be added in the not-so-distant future).
Last but not least, with the forthcoming December 2004 release of the LiveDesign Service Pack II (which existing users will be able to download from the Altium website), the current microprocessor cores supported by Nexar will be augmented with Altium's own 32-bit offering.
Dubbed the TSK3000 (which doesn't exactly trip off the tongue), Altium says that this 32-bit FPGA-based RISC core (with associated busses and peripherals) has been specifically designed to minimize the complications and complexity usually associated with 32-bit system design. The TSK3000 comes equipped with a Viper-based embedded software development toolset (C compiler, assembler, profiler and source-level debugger), and its C code is compatible with Nexar's existing 8-bit cores.
So there you have it. Altium certainly gets an official "Cool Beans" from me, and I'm now frantically racing to get this column posted on the EEDesign website before the little rascals announce something else. 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.