According to surveys, the leading factors that influence decisions to choose modular instrumentation over traditional test instruments include cost, footprint size, and the benefits of modularity itself. For these reasons, among others, modular instrumentation is growing in popularity, and the large manufacturers of traditional instruments are starting to take notice.
Agilent Technologies has been a player in the modular arena for quite some time, but in a quiet way. It’s likely that few would guess that Agilent is the second largest vendor of PXI test products. But the sleeping giant has awoken, as Agilent is rolling out an enormous expansion of its modular instrumentation line, serving notice that it’s back in the game in a big way.
The massive launch includes 46 separate PXI and AdvancedTCA Extensions for Instrumentation and Test (AXIe) products, including digitizers, arbitrary waveform generators, digitizing scopes, digital multimeters, and a range of switching modules (see the figure). Modules include IVI-C, IVI-COM, and LabVIEW software drivers as well as enhanced I/O libraries. With this launch, Agilent has adopted PCI Express (PXIe) as a standard controller I/O interface for its modular instrumentation line.
A big part of Agilent’s thinking in putting together this expansion of its modular lineup was true modularity, giving users the freedom to put together the hardware and software that’s best for their applications. In terms of hardware interfaces, Agilent has standardized on USB, PCIe, and LAN/LAN-to-GPIB. On the software side, the offering includes a full complement of drivers, calibration routines, soft front panels, chassis management tools, and I/O libraries.
“We won’t force customers into a particular software environment because they’re choosing modules,” says Carla Feldman, marketing manager for Agilent’s Modular Product Operation. Rather, Agilent is supporting all popular driver technologies for seamless interoperation between PXI and AXIe hardware. The soft front panels aid in system setup and debug as well as in discovering hardware capabilities and configurations.
Among the PXI products are the first modular microwave signal analyzer, the M9392A, which includes a preselector, local oscillator/reference, microwave and RF downconverters, and digitizer/digital-IF modules. This instrument, which offers connectivity to Agilent’s 89600 VSA software, performs detailed signal analysis up to 26.5 GHz. It also provides instantaneous bandwidth of 250 MHz, a figure of merit that some of Agilent’s standalone signal analyzers cannot match.
Also among the PXI offerings is an 18-slot PXIe chassis, the first in the industry with 16 PXI hybrid slots. The M9018A chassis offers a fully switched fabric capability that can route through the backplane from any slot to any other slot, enabling multiple lanes of PCIe traffic to be routed efficiently.
This launch also positions Agilent among the leaders in adoption of the AXIe instrumentation standard. The standard is the product of a consortium formed in November 2009, and the initial specification was ratified in June. Based on AdvancedTCA, AXIe is a modern, high-performance, and modular compute platform that brings a much larger card form factor to the table.
“While a PXIe chassis is limited to 30 W/slot, AXIe is designed for power and cooling of over 200 W/slot,” says Von Campbell, Agilent’s Modular Product Operation planning manager.
Highlights from among the AXIe side of the launch include a pair of AXIe 1.0 chassis. The M9502A is a two-slot chassis in a 2U height, and the M9595A is a five-slot model in a 4U height. The two-slot chassis is the springboard for the U4301A, a PCIe Gen3 analyzer, which Agilent calls the first measurement module capable of working in an AXIe 1.0 chassis. The instrument enables accurate multi-gigabit signal capture and protocol testing for analysis of wider serial buses.
Individual module prices range from less than $2000 to $42,000. Chassis pricing starts at $7500.