Future-Proof Today's Test Systems to Handle Tomorrow's Devices

For many, the phrase “achieving faster time-to-market” may have become a tiresome cliché. However, it remains the day-to-day reality in virtually every technology-based industry. As product life cycles become ever shorter, a test system frozen in time will rapidly fall behind the evolution of tomorrow’s devices. This scenario is made more painful by the process of overhauling, redesigning, or outright replacing existing systems. 

The better alternative is a future-proofed test stand built on a flexible platform. That flexibility must extend to both the software and hardware elements of the test system.

This is not a new idea. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Defense announced the “modular open systems approach” (MOSA) as its strategy for the development of new systems and the modernization of existing ones. By modularizing system components and abstracting functionality to basic building blocks, it becomes easier to manage system evolution. As an example, a tighter phase requirement in a next-generation wireless standard could be addressed by upgrading a local oscillator (LO) module within the functional equivalent of an RF analyzer.

As the name implies, another important aspect of MOSA is the central role of open standards. These eliminate the risks of sole-sourcing and enable multiple vendors to offer viable alternatives. Open standards also increase the likelihood of creating a healthy ecosystem populated by competing vendors. PXI is a prime example.

Modular systems also abstract the processing units from the measurement I/O. As an example, an embedded controller often is the principle processing unit in a PXI-based system. It sits separate from but alongside the measurement modules. This offers three key benefits:

  • Upgrading a software-based test system is as simple as replacing the embedded controller with a more capable one.
  • The controller can be  swapped out easily in case of failure or to accommodate a different software and driver stack.
  • It is possible to add “peer” processing cards containing FPGAs or graphical processing units that enable dramatic improvements in measurement speed and performance.

Abstracting the functional hardware blocks from the measurement software has another useful consequence: Multiple software-defined instruments can share the same set of functional hardware blocks. These software-defined instruments can be updated and improved as needed in the future. For example, better averaging and interpolation can improve the dynamic range of an old digitizer within the limits of its noise floor.

All these factors lead to greater flexibility and stronger investment protection into the foreseeable future. It all depends on the platform—and the platform determines whether a test system can either evolve to meet new challenges or fade away.

That brings us back to PXI. By virtue of being built on the PCI and PCI Express (PCIe) standards, PXI benefits from the support of the computer industry’s ecosystem and longevity. PCI first appeared in computers in 1994 and still can be found in systems today. With the PCI-SIG standards group taking the same nurturing approach with PCIe, the lifetime of the platform is likely to surpass that of its predecessor—and that would carry the PXI platform beyond 2020.

The notion of leveraging these future-proof technologies extends beyond modules to include the system chassis or crate. As an example, the inclusion of PCIe Gen 2.0 links enables chassis-to-host data transfers at bandwidths of 4 GB/s, which is beyond the requirements of any current PXI instrument. Further, a novel approach to the switching fabric allows peer-to-peer communications between devices in adjacent slots within a switch group, offloading bandwidth to the controller and enabling greater overall system throughput among connected devices. As a final step, accommodating legacy PXI-H (hybrid) modules as well as new PXIe modules creates a chassis that supports yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Call it “faster time to upgrade” or “faster time to adapt.” On the technical side, the key result is a flexible test system that has a better chance of keeping pace as your devices continue to evolve. On the business side, the ultimate benefit is faster time-to-market in today’s increasingly unforgiving marketplace.

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