Cloud-based tools are changing embedded design

Unified development with support of cloud technologies is set to change the way design teams collaborate, capture and create, writes Frank Krämer, technical marketing director, EMEA at Altium Europe.

In an increasingly competitive world, the ability to securely share and access information is critical; whether the information changes weekly, daily or even by the minute, the crucial attribute is that it’s never out of date.

Access to ‘always-on’ data is rapidly becoming a ‘must-have’. This is one of the driving forces towards creating and adopting a cloud-based working environment, perhaps the most significant change in the way we all work since the industrial revolution.

For engineering teams, the creation and dissemination of information invariably takes the form of IP and design files, and keeping that data concurrent is a well recognised challenge, particularly as design teams are now often co-located across sites and regions, or even countries and time zones.

With multiple teams working on a single project, the challenge of data management can often now form the hub of the design environment. But while centralised data storage is possible, the goal of a fully collaborative design team may still be out of reach. This is due in part to the inescapable fact that different disciplines use disparate design environments, while the need for a standardised file interface remains.

However, continued investment – both intellectually and physically – in delivering cloud-based services means that the real-time sharing of always-current design data is becoming a reality.

Similarly, the latest developments from leading tool vendors are not only delivering tools to access the power of the cloud, but creating unified development environments that really do cross design disciplines. This – arguably for the first time – makes truly collaborative design both feasible and attainable.

The importance of a unified design environment is that it unifies the design data domain. A benefit of this is that it enables the concept of configuration management, whereby it is possible to associate specific design files under a unique release configuration. This means that not only can every aspect of a product variant be traced back to the actual design file, but any changes to any part of that design can be identified and, if necessary, propagated through to the release documents, while being revision controlled.

Providing the ability to share data more productively will also have a massive impact on the way components are used in the future. Through a centralised component database, engineering teams get direct access to a repository of all components created by each member of that team, but through the cloud it is also able to provide access to live design data and even price and availability of components from the distribution channels.

Once configured, engineers can browse, select and implement components with the knowledge that they aren’t selecting a component that is about to be made obsolete, is in short supply or is prohibitively expensive for the project. The ability to manage alternative and preferred sources means that the procurement process becomes more efficient. 

This concept of unifying the component, design and release domains is enabled by a data content management system that Altium calls Vaults; these are databases which are dedicated to storing and sharing design files, and have been designed to meet the specific requirements of their respective contents. For instance, during the design phase, the system needs to enable collaborative development through file sharing, version control and so on, while during release processes the release vault needs to be very good at managing variants, revisions and audit paths. To this end, the release vault requires any change to the form, fit or function of a product to be released under its own unique revision number.

While Altium Designer provides the tools for accessing these Vaults, the vault server is a completely different entity to AD10 and comes with its own deployment options. These include locally hosted or cloud-based solutions. Vaults can also exist on an enterprise network where they can be accessed through the LAN using AD10 or a browser. This means procurement and production departments can also have instant access to concurrent release variants through a simple web interface.

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