Understanding NI’s software-designed instrument strategy
The intention is to bring the functional programming capability of the PC to design and test instruments.
The programming function is carried out in LabView with designs being implemented on new configurable hardware based on FPGAs.
This first software-designed instrument, the PXIe-5644R RF vector signal transceiver, combined an RF front-end and data conversion with a data processing capability provide by a Virtex 6 FPGA. LabView was used to configure hardware for specific mobile protocols.
The firm’s second software-designed instrument takes the concept further into the domain of embedded system design.
It is a controller for NI’s CompactRIO embedded design platform based on FPGA-reconfigurable I/O.
The functional capability of the controller benefits from a significant increase in processing power. This comes from the Xilinx Zynq-7020 programmable system-on-chip device with a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and 7 Series FPGA fabric.
The cRIO-9068 controller runs a newly-developed Linux-based, real-time operating system which supports both LabView and C/C++ applications.
NI’s belief is that a single software environment – LabView – can be used for embedded design and test.
The jump in processing power provided by the dual-core Cortex-A9 processor coupled with programmable elements with expand the areas of embedded system design in which the CompactRIO platform can be used.
To make a software-designed instrument such as the PXIe-5644R RF vector signal transceiver more accessible to “non-FPGA experienced” designers, there are now instrument driver FPGA extensions which will simplify the task of programming the open FPGA.
It will provide the compatibility found with standard instrument drivers, says NI.
The FlexRIO platform has also been given a processing power boost, with a new FPGA module, the PXIe-7975R, based on a Xilinx 7 Series FPGA. This doubles the data streaming bandwidth to 1.6GB/s and quadruples the on-board DRAM to 2GB when compared with current FPGA modules.
There is also a new PXI Express adapter module – the PXIe-8383mc, which will enable designs to have floating-point processing running on multiple CPUs in the system the same way fixed-point processing deploys across multiple FPGAs.
No matter how much processing power and I/O there is, the hardware will only be as useful as the application software which is available to run on it.
NI is tapping into the open-source software communities on the web to complete this piece of the software-design instrument jigsaw.
The latest version of LabVIEW 2013 provides support for the firm’s Linux real-time OS, this includes community-sourced libraries and applications for control and monitoring systems.
At last year’s launch of the first software-designed instrument, Jeff Kodosky, business and technology fellow and co-founder of National Instruments commented: “The focus is no longer on “how do I fit the instrument to the measurement I want?” Instead, it is on “how should I make the ideal measurement?”
The cRIO-9068 controller takes this approach into the heart of embedded system design, which is where National Instruments increasingly wants to be.