Wireless Systems Design

Wireless Future Holds Engineering Challenges

The increasing popularity of 802.11 wireless-local-area-network (WLAN) technology helps to prove that wireless is the wave of the future. Consumers want to be free from the confines of wires and cables. At the same time, they want to stay connected—regardless of where they may be. The migration to wireless technology will therefore be welcomed. But it won't be easy. Moving to a wireless world brings significant design challenges that still need to be addressed. Design flexibility will be the key to resolving these issues.

Some of the challenges, such as providing enough bandwidth, will evolve over time. There is adequate bandwidth for current applications. But experience has shown that demand will increase as more and varied types of communications seek to go wireless. Cellular telephony, for example, has evolved from simple voice to include text and imaging. Video is now starting to make an appearance. As video becomes more widespread in wireless communications—including networking applications—the bandwidth demand is sure to increase.

The industry will need to create ever more effective ways of pumping data through a wireless link. The present steps toward 3G cellular and the advent of Wi-Fi for networking go in that direction. But they will not be the last. To keep pace with bandwidth opportunities, wireless-systems designers must be prepared to evolve their designs quickly.

Another ever-changing challenge is the need for security. Having a wireless network in an office reduces cost and increases work efficiency. But that network also radiates out signals to the rest of the world. To date, wireless networks have not yet addressed the problem of preventing their contents from being accessible outside of a company. Field sales-staff members have reported, for instance, that they can link into an office network simply by driving past a building. The wireless industry will need to develop ways of securing these wireless networks, thereby preventing any passerby from tapping into them.

Security measures will need to continue evolving as data rates increase and security technology improves. These measures will become a standard ingredient in a wireless system that never standardizes. System designs will have an ongoing need for new security algorithms. To keep pace with increasing bandwidth demands, those algorithms will require rapid execution. Wireless designs also will need to be flexible in order to accommodate ongoing changes.

In addition to these emerging obstacles, wireless communications has more immediate challenges to face. One issue is the cost and ease of designing wireless connectivity into a system. Many companies are seeking to make their existing products wireless. But they're having difficulty connecting their systems to the necessary radio modules and baseband processors. Often, these wireless building blocks don't have a common interface, such as PCI, that allows ready insertion into the existing design. They need some type of bridging device that can provide the needed performance while being flexible enough to handle a variety of interfaces.

Another immediate issue is miniaturization. One of the main reasons to make something wireless is to make it portable. Portability implies that the device will be small and lightweight. This trend is taken to the extreme in Asia, where cell phones are becoming—for lack of a better word—tiny. The North American market has more moderate demands. But here too, size still matters. As a result, the device packaging for everything in the system, including the bridging devices, needs to move to styles like fine pitch and ball grid arrays (BGAs).

The most significant challenge right now, however, is to make the design consume as little power as possible. A true wireless system has no external wires—not even a connection to the wall socket. A design's power demands will determine whether or not it has adequate battery life. Yet it must have high enough performance to meet the needs of data-bandwidth and security measures. Traditionally, this combination of low power and high performance has come from ASIC designs. But they're proving too costly and slow to design to keep pace with the evolving challenges of the wireless industry. Flexibility will become a key aspect of wireless-systems design as developers strive to meet current and evolving challenges.

Fortunately, programmable technology has evolved to meet the challenges above. Low-power programmable devices are available in the small packaging required by wireless developers. And their performance matches the needs of demanding designs. They also offer the flexibility that's needed to bridge current designs to wireless components. As a core data-processing component of wireless systems, programmable devices can make the entire design flexible. Developers will then be able to handle new data protocols and security algorithms by reprogramming a part of the design, rather than redoing the entire thing. Sure, there are significant challenges to address in wireless. Luckily, there also are components that can help solve them.

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