Expanding information capacity—bandwidth, in today's parlance—has been a constant in the history of technology. Electromechanical media (the telegraph) gave way to analog electronics, then digital, and then to protocol-based communication. Measurement tools have played an important role in each advance. Protocol-based communication multiplied the speed and volume of transmitted information in large-scale systems and eventually found its way into smaller-scale devices and components. Similarly, emerging technologies like the connectivity architecture known as "switch fabric" are now entering the market in high-end systems and network equipment. Embodied in InfiniBand and other emerging standards, the new technology will multiply the capacity of transmission and storage elements by at least an order of magnitude.
Emerging technologies challenge designers by posing unseen technical difficulties, but reward those who succeed. Switch fabrics offer a performance leap that will bring out the creativity in system designers and technology strategists. But these innovators will require tools to enable their R&D. These tools must correctly anticipate the needs of a still-stabilizing technology.
The switch-fabric architecture is still young, and presently limited to mission-critical switching, computing, and storage devices for data-center applications. But a designer envisioning tomorrow's department-level server or even a desktop PC might like to know if switch-fabric concepts can work their wonders on a smaller scale. That brings the design engineer to an important crossroads. Designers must always balance the risks of using innovative new technologies against the potential competitive advantages—a classic short-term versus long-term decision.
The comfortable approach of using proven components and architectures gets the product to market quickly and reliably. But that product might die a quick death if a competitor takes more risks, successfully embraces a new technology, and brings out a faster and better product. Should you take the risk, or play it safe, explore the new technology, or take an incremental step that adds just a little more speed and capacity? While the switch fabric is just an example here, it illustrates the urgency of the risk/reward equation. History has delivered rich rewards to innovators who increased information capacity. What can be done to reduce their risks and encourage their creativity?
The answer lies in building a foundation of experimental work to validate the basic assumptions about adapting a new technology, such as switch fabrics, to a particular application. Helping designers build that foundation as well as the structure on top of it is the job of test, measurement, and monitoring equipment makers. The job encompasses two distinct responsibilities: enabling designers to push forward with technologies like switch fabrics; and simplifying their experimentation, verification, and debug work.
Enabling a new technology boils down to providing timely tools that the engineer can use to track a design's progress as it evolves. Inevitably, this means a certain level of performance (usually more advanced than ever before), but it also implies having a range of tools, from general-purpose measurement types (oscilloscopes and logic analyzers) to very specialized instruments (protocol analyzers). It's often useful to have linkages among these diverse instruments, so that lessons from early development work can be documented and re-used throughout the design process. In many cases, there's a need for application-specific probes as well as software support packages for the evolving product. Enabling a new technology is all about anticipating these needs, and making sure that tools are available when users need them.
Simplifying the designer's job means providing tools that help the user handle complex measurement problems. The solution involves adding intelligence and automation to the instrument, an optimized, intuitive user interface, and a large, legible, information-rich display.
However important instrument speed and overall performance often is, understated enhancements can make a large difference. For example, the ability to integrate a cutting-edge oscilloscope with a high-performance logic analyzer—embodied in packages such as Tektronix's Integrated View (iView)—can provide users with time-correlated analog and digital waveforms on a single display. With more signal, data, and application windows to view and analyze, some of the latest logic analyzers enable the use of multiple monitors simultaneously. This can dramatically increase a designer's productivity.
Simplifying is all about getting the essential early validation work done quickly and accurately. With their industry-wide, and essentially impartial, view of emerging trends and technologies, instrumentation makers are in a unique position to anticipate, and then enable developments like the switch-fabric architecture. What exciting new technology will designers work with tomorrow? Chances are, the test and measurement industry is developing tools for it today.