Emerging LXI Spec Weds Ethernet with Instrumentation Apps

The functional test and data acquisition community has been instrumental in
establishing many industry standards, ranging from communications interfaces
to instrumentation backplanes. The need for ever-increasing bandwidths and higher
data transfer rates has helped drive the latest industry initiative, LAN eXtensions
for Instrumentation (LXI). LXI is based upon industry=standard Ethernet technology
and will provide the flexibility and performance common on backplane-based implementations,
such as VXIbus, to the next generation of small and medium size systems (Figure
1). The LXI Consortium was formed in the fall of 2004 by VXI Technology and
Agilent Technologies to address this need, and membership has since grown to
over 20 leading test and measurement companies from around the globe.

Ethernet has emerged as the clear choice for this next-generation standard based
upon technical merit and wide general industry acceptance of the interface by
computer manufacturers and users. Technical advantages such as TCP/IP error checking,
fault detection, long inter-device connectivity, ease of cable routing and inexpensive
networking hardware clearly make Ethernet an attractive alternative to current
parallel bus and other serial-based interfaces. Many of these attributes that
have made Ethernet so popular to the computer industry are also attractive to
the instrumentation community; however, instrumentation manufacturers and users
alike demand key functionality not typically associated with this vanilla flavored
Ethernet.

Beyond Plain Vanilla Ethernet

Determinism, synchronization, triggering, device discovery and predictable software
driver interoperability are all essential functional requirements that extend
beyond vanilla Ethernet performance. Different applications areas will also drive
different functional

requirements, and these requirements can vary tremendously with applications ranging
from bench top to functional test to distributed data acquisition to remote smart
sensors. While all of these cases require guaranteed network interoperability,
careful evaluation resulted in the identification of three functional groups that
are commonly encountered in mechanical and electrical test. The first group includes
applications requiring very tight phase relationships between measured data points;
this drives the need for deterministic hardware triggering. The second group requires
close synchronization, but this can be accomplished by precision triggering across
the serial bus. The final group requires minimal triggering and timing control,
but must ensure proper network communications.

As a result, the LXI specification has been written to ensure these key technical
requirements are addressed, while providing manufacturers the flexibility to
design hardware solutions without undue restrictions. Therefore, three distinct
specification classes have been defined with the characteristics outlined in
Table 1.

Network Connectivity

One of the primary goals of the LXI Consortium is to provide users an experience
that is free of undue frustrations and integration complications, whether they
are using a single instrument or combining multiple devices in a larger functional
test or data acquisition system. Class C compliance ensures that these expectations
are met with network functionality that includes device discovery and web browser
interfacing, which are indeed crucial to a positive user experience.

Users of backplane-based systems, such as VXI, are familiar with resource management
utilities that identify all of the available hardware in the system, and provide
details such as base address, memory utilizations and the like.

Without these utilities the identification of resources would be tedious and prone
to errors. Identifying devices and resources in distributed networks poses a similar
problem; therefore, Class C requires the use of VXI-11 for the identification
of instruments connected to the network.

VXI-11 uses Remote Procedure Calls (RPC) as its underlying technology, which provides
utilities, libraries and protocols designed to assist programmers in developing
networked applications. During device auto-discovery, a broadcast RPC is performed
and sent to the VXI-11 server. After collecting a list of VXI-11 server addresses
on the LAN, a VXI-11 connection to each of those addresses is

established and a “*IDN” message is sent. The data received from the
response to these queries permits the building of a resource table that can be
used by other applications and utilities.

Serial Connection Synchronization

Basic network connectivity and communications may address stand-alone applications,
but the synchronization and control of multiple instruments is essential for most
functional test and data acquisition applications; therefore Class B-compliant
devices address these needs. Historically, Network Time Protocol (NTP) has been
used as the de facto standard to synchronize the clocks of multiple computers
connected to a network. This approach typically offers synchronization in the
millisecond range with many factors affecting the actual precision of NTP timing
including network traffic, switches, routers and distances between devices. The
non-deterministic nature of this approach was therefore not acceptable.

The most accurate Ethernet-based timing is available through IEEE 1588, referred
to as Precision Time Protocol (PTP). PTP is a standard that defines a precision
clock synchronization protocol for networked measurement and control systems.
The protocol is designed to enable the synchronization of systems that include
clocks of different precision, resolution and stability. Sub-microsecond accuracy
can be achieved with minimal network and local clock computing resources, and
with little administrative attention from the user.

There are several ways in which PTP can be implemented, ranging from user-level
software control, to kernel-level driver modifications, to hardware implementations
utilizing dedicated FPGA devices. User- and kernel-level modifications, while
out performing NTP, will still be limited by other operating system processes.
The highest level of precision is obtained when hardware implementations assist
in the time stamping of incoming and outgoing network packets or frames; delay
fluctuations can be in the nanosecond range with this approach. Therefore, the
incorporation of PTP in Class B devices will provide LXI a level of synchronization
that will easily address many typical multiple instrument installations without
the need for additional cabling or clock distribution systems.

Hardware Synchronization and Triggering

While PTP-enabled devices are capable of providing significant improvements over
NTP, there are still applications that demand hardware-level triggering to ensure
deterministic responses and handshaking. Class C-compliant devices will provide
an auxiliary trigger subsystem that can provide extremely precise timing and control
signals to multiple instruments with minimum phase skew referred to as Trigger
Bus.

The Trigger Bus interface incorporates Low Voltage Differential Signal (LVDS)
line drivers utilizing the latest available technology and miniature connector
configurations. Flexible twisted pair cabling is used to ensure signal integrity
and maximize transmission distances between devices. Standard implementations
will include bi-directional triggering capability, and will support both star
and daisy-chain implementations.

Class C-compliant devices will provide the means for deterministic triggering
and synchronization of LXI instruments using a consistent hardware interface and
program interface (Figure 2). The Trigger Bus interface also provides a means
to interface with other open standard platform architectures, such as VXIbus,
with ease, thus maximizing the users test and measurement investment dollars.

Test and Measurement LAN Implementations

Selecting the right network topology is also an important consideration that can
have a significant impact on the overall performance and timing of LXI instrumentation.
Ethernet-based communication involves the transmittal and receipt of data packets
across a single data path, and a typical corporate network can have hundreds or
even thousands of devices competing for their share of the available bandwidth.
Limitations in system bandwidth, coupled with overall network communications loading,
can increase latencies and increase the likelihood of data packet collisions and
associated transmission delays.

Another aspect that must be considered is corporate information technology (IT)
policies and procedures. Many corporations closely monitor network implementations
and may restrict the use of certain configurations and topologies. This issue
is further complicated by security concerns and the use of mandated security tools
and firewalls. Therefore, the cleanest approach for most implementations addresses
both of these issues, and involves the establishment of a dedicated test local
area network (TLAN).

Dedicated networks are inexpensive to install and provide the necessary isolation
between corporate-wide network traffic and the test system. The basic system,
shown in Figure 3, uses a second Ethernet interface to connect the TLAN with the
rest of the corporation, or the World Wide Web, with little effort. Isolated

instrumentation networks also eliminate many of the logistical issues that may
arise when trying to conform to corporate network requirements. Security concerns
can also be addressed by simply not allowing physical access to outside network
connections.

Software and Programming

The final implementation issue involves software drivers and programming interfaces.
Well planned network topologies and synchronization schemes are still dependent
on software drivers and programming interfaces if multi-vendor interoperability
and operating system independence are to be assured. The very nature of Ethernet
and LXI-based instrumentation implies that many different configurations will
be implemented utilizing hardware from different instrumentation, computer,
switching, router and computer interface manufacturers.

The LXI Consortium has ensured that features such as software interoperability,
maintainability and reusability are maintained by mandating that compliant devices
be provided with IVI driver sets. The manufacturer is free to determine which
variant best fits the product, IVI-COM or IVI-C, but one of these must be provided.
Utilizing a standard API greatly reduces program development and software maintenance
costs and ensures that application programs can be written in any standard language,
such as C/C++, LabVIEW, Visual Basic or VEE, all with the same familiar interface.

Real World Adoption

The successful adoption of any standard requires more than simply articulating
technical merits, it includes dedicated real world implementation teams identifying
potential issues and ensuring complete functionality. This standard will provide
the basis for long life cycle instrumentation implementations that are not limited
by bandwidth, software or computer-dependent architectures. Designs based upon
the LXI standard are ideal for a wide range of functional test and data acquisition
applications by providing instrumentation that features open architecture, modularity
and computer independence.

The LXI Consortium continues to evolve the preliminary specification with a planned
official release date in September of 2005. A preliminary release of the specification
will be available for initial design purposes by the end of the first quarter
of 2005, and this will be followed by several interoperability test sessions (plugfests)
in the following months. The Consortium encourages anticipation by instrumentation
manufacturers and users. Additional information can be found at the Consortium
web site www.lxistandard.org.

VXI Technology
Irvine, CA.
(949) 955-1894.
[www.vxitech.com].