I was just on the phone chatting with Nick Martin, the Chairman, Founder, CEO, and – in his spare time – CTO, of Altium. Those clever guys and gals from "Down Under" have just announced the Altium Innovation Station, which is a combination of the latest release of their unified electronics design software, Altium Designer, and a newly extended range of Altium NanoBoard reconfigurable hardware platforms.
As you may recall, Altium Designer is a complete design environment that lets you capture and verify an entire system, including the circuit board and the hardware/software components of any FPGAs mounted on that board (it's fair to say that this integration of the board and FPGA views is state-of-the-art).
Of particular interest is the new Desktop Nanoboard as shown below. As for previous generations of the NanoBoard, users can choose from a selection of daughter cards containing FPGAs from different vendors (Cyclone II devices, from Altera; Spartan 3 chips from Xilinx; or LatticeECP components from Lattice Semiconductor).
One thing that's different with the Innovation Station is that you are no longer required to inform Altium Designer as to which daughter card you are using – instead, the system automatically detects the type of daughter card you've plugged in.
Another new feature is that, in addition to daughter cards, you can also select from a range of peripheral cards, such as a memory card or an interface card supporting Ethernet, USB, etc. Now, this is where things start to get clever. As soon as you've plugged one or more peripheral cards into your Desktop Nanoboard, Innovation Station automatically detects which cards are present and configures the system with the appropriate drivers and so forth.
One thing I really like is that every IP block comes with an associated driver and a reference design in the form of an example application, because this allows you to hit the ground running. Another thing I really like is that all of the IP blocks (soft microprocessor cores, USB, etc) and their associated software drivers are both license- and royalty-free.
The end result is that embedded system design teams can have a fully-configured prototype up and running incredibly quickly, thereby allowing the software developers to leap into action with gusto and abandon.
Also of interest is the fact that the Desktop NanoBoard and its daughter and peripheral cards are festooned with current sensors. This allows you to monitor the real-world power consumption of your design and to experiment with different scenarios along the lines of: "What happens if I use this FPGA versus that FPGA?" and "How does the power consumption change if I increase the system's clock frequency by 10%?
"But what happens when you wish to deploy your design?" you cry. Well, this is where things start to get really clever. In the case of prototype systems or short production runs, you may decide to go with one of Altium's off-the-shelf deployment boards, each of which is presented in a different type of enclosure. These include desktop boards, wall-mounted boards, and even an industrial handheld configuration (each deployment board and enclosure combo comes equipped with a 3D model that you can use in your 3D CAD system to make sure the board can be accommodated in its intended location).
If you have more specialist requirements (analog blocks or digital functions that you cannot accommodate using the FPGA on the daughter card, for example), then you can design your own peripheral cards and add them into the mix.
Alternatively, in the case of large production runs and/or the most cost-conscious designs, you can opt to create a full-custom deployment board. The fact that Innovation Station already has access to the schematics and documentation associated with the Desktop NanoBoard – along with all of its daughter and peripheral cards – makes this largely just a process of re-laying out a new board.
For myself, I think all of this is very exciting, and I can't wait to publish some "How To" design articles showing Innovation Station in action.
Altium Innovation Station price and availability
The Altium Innovation Station, consisting of Altium Designer 6 and Altium's Desktop NanoBoard, is available now for purchase. Altium's range of deployment NanoBoards will be available later in 2008. Pricing is available from Altium's sales team – details can be found at: www.Altium.com/Contacts.