Joe Desposito's Blog

National Instruments Changes the Test Game—Again

Back in 1998 when I was the Test & Measurment Editor for Electronic Design, I remember going to our annual editorial meeting and being asked to come up with some article ideas for the following year. Up until then, we had typically published an article on VXI. But I had been to NI Week and found out about a fairly new test platform called PXI, that NI had invented. I suggested that we write a feature article about PXI rather than VXI. The article idea was accepted and I wrote the first PXI feature to appear in Electronic Design.

As you likely know, the PXI platform was a game changer for test. It’s an open platform, so many companies are able to build PXI boards and many systems engineers are able to build test equipment at a much lower cost than typical VXI systems. PXI continued to develop and grow, and eventually took advantage of the PCI Express standard to become PXI Express.

Today at NI Week, National Instruments announced a new instrument on the PXI platform called a Vector Signal Transceiver (VST), the NI PXIe-5644R. This RF instrument combines a vector signal generator, vector signal analyzer and digital I/O with a user-programmable FPGA for real-time signal processing and control. The entire instrument fits into three slots of a PXIe chassis. It increases the speed of test while lowering power and cost. As if this weren’t enough, the VST’s software is built on the LabVIEW FPGA and NI RIO (reconfigurable I/O) architecture. This means that users can actually go into the FPGA, change the LabVIEW code and reconfigure or even create a new instrument! National Instruments calls this “software designed instrumentation.”

In addition, National Instruments will make Instrument Design Libraries available that users can use to replace parts of the firmware, since the firmware was created as independent blocks that can be replaced or removed altogether. NI hopes to create the equivalent of the Apple App Store for the test and embedded communities. In other words, users who need a particular function for the instrument can download an app for free or purchase an app to do the job. This is in line with the LabVIEW Tools Network announced at NI Week last year.

Finally, NI introduced Doug Johnson from Qualcomm Atheros, who explained what his engineering team has been able to do with this instrument already. As an NI partner, his team got their hands on the VST well before today’s announcement and was able to add critical code to the FPGA to speed up measurements significantly for the particular 802.11ac tests they needed to do. NI refers to this type of code addition as “LabVIEW to the pin.”

NI is calling its new VST a paradigm shift for test. I’m calling it a game changer. Either way this appears to be a disruptive change for the test and measurement industry.

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