Agilent addresses digital signal measurement drivers

Two industries are driving the need for higher speed measurements of digital signals, according to Mississauga-based Agilent Technologies Inc.

Agilent, a former division of Hewlett-Packard Co., held a presentation on Friday to discuss the latest trends in measuring digital signals. The company believes both the communication and semiconductor industries are responsible for the need for higher speeds to measure digital signals.

Johnnie Hancock, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based marketing program manager for Agilent, mapped out the key trends in today’s digital market at the event. The key trends from Agilent’s point of view, he said, are increasing integration, increasing speed, standards adoption, architectural shifts and designer/team dynamics.

Increasing integration is creating challenges for engineers. A chip with an embedded microcontroller or microprocessor cause access problems, Hancock said.

“A very complex, dense packaging causes headaches for engineers in how they probe the signals, like in dense PC boards, greater than 12 layers,” Hancock said.

Another level of integration is the combination of analogue and digital all in the same integrated circuit, he said.

“That creates a lot of headaches for a designer of a mixed signal system, where you have very sensitive analogue signals running adjacent to very high-speed digital signals, where you can get couplings and roundouts,” Hancock said.

In the area of increasing speed, digital designers are concerned with the edge rate, or the speed of the rise times.

“Today you have data that’s being transmitted primarily, serially – happens just one time, send a packet out, you’ve got to capture it single shot, not repetitive,” Hancock said. “So how do you capture real-time or single shot at high-speed signals like this? Well up until recently you couldn’t, so that was a big problem.”

Designers are also faced with decreasing margins of clock cycles down to less than sub-100 pico seconds, thereby creating the need for high performance and accurate measurements, he said.

“The integration of the two (analogue and digital) is what we call signal integrity and that segment is growing tremendously,” Hancock said.

Another industry trend is standards adoption, a change Hancock feels is a good thing. A few years ago measurement equipment consisted of a proprietary CPU system and internal buses, but now equipment contains a Pentium PC and standard buses.

Agilent and its competitors have been able to roll with industry improvements in both CPUs and buses, now that they have eliminated the proprietary devices within their measuring equipment, Hancock said.

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