Electronic Design

It's All Perspective

I had an excellent time at Georgia Tech (yes, I'm a Ramblin' Wreck) and Rutgers. Going to college is great because of the wide variety of courses you have to take in addition to the electives of your choice. The trend to teach and use current technology holds the advantage of getting a graduate productive quickly, but there is a downside—lack of perspective.

As engineers and programmers, we know that any problem has more than one solution. However, discovering that solution requires knowledge of the options. One of the biggest problems I encountered doing development was trying to keep abreast of areas other than the one I was currently working on. Likewise, I was always surprised by the ways I could apply ideas I learned in different areas to problems I was tackling. Having a wide and varied background always helped me to generate a better solution.

One big advantage I've had while working for a range of publications is the opportunity to play with tools and products like Altera's Nios Development Kit. It's surprisingly flexible, easy to use, and very powerful. I have experimented with designs without having to pull out my wire-wrap gun or soldering iron. The interesting perspective is the ability to implement the Nios RISC processor as a 16- or 32-bit CPU in a Stratix FPGA. The programming tools are the same, so the tradeoff is performance, space, and power requirements—just the kind of thing found in "Squeezing 16-Bit MCUs" (p. 62).

This type of experimentation pays dividends in the long run. In fact, many of you may already be playing with tools and applications outside your normal chores. Contributing or using open-source software is a fantastic way to widen programming expertise. Picking up some of the inexpensive design kits is another. Many 8- and16-bit kits are available for under $100. Try building a robot or controlling your lights. The problems, solutions, and tools will give you varied and valuable perspectives.

I'll let you know how some of the tools I've been working with pan out. I've been sticking with the standard components and a single Nios CPU with Altera's SoPC Builder, but I barely made a dent in the large Stratix FPGA. Let me know how you keep current.

See associated figure.

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