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Altium Goes 3D
Board Design Can Be Fun

by Kevin Morris, FPGA and Structured ASIC Journal

He holds the joystick with a light, experienced grip – his eyes fixed on the screen.  His hands are steady as his viewpoint skims through a rotating object resembling a cityscape with strange buildings and vast networks of roads interconnecting them.  He then dives below the surface, moving through the layers of the virtual world, flying past cylinders that look like giant elevator shafts bridging the levels.  He slows as he comes to the area he’s interested in. 

There, he spots a problem.  A buried via is dangerously near a mounting hole, creating the possibility of a short when mounting hardware is inserted and normal manufacturing variations skew toward their limit.  Switching to a 2D view, he corrects the problem.  While this may look and feel like the next version of some Xbox 360 game, Altium, Ltd. says they are sticking to the more traditional PC platforms for now.  What they are doing, however, is raising the bar on visualization for board design with a full 3D viewing and analysis environment tied directly to their PCB design database – and that’s just one of the enhancements in the latest edition of their comprehensive Altium Designer electronic design tool suite.

Altium continues their contrarian practice of re-writing the book on electronic design automation.  A few years ago, they stopped showing up at the Design Automation Conference.  “What?” everyone said, “How can an EDA company skip DAC?”  Skipping DAC, it turns out, was the least of their mold-breaking behaviors.  Their Altium Designer offering integrates logical and physical board design, FPGA design, embedded software design and debug, and a host of other capabilities supporting the electronic design process all in one unified environment.  This brings together in one product a number of capabilities that most EDA companies would relegate to separate divisions, some of whom would hardly ever speak to each other.

Altium founder Nick Martin is the engineer’s engineer, and that philosophy has always permeated the company’s culture and products.  As a result, Altium (formerly known as ProTel) has always been the supplier of choice for the smaller company with the smaller design tool budget.  Now, however, they’re starting to move up the management chain and win the bigger deals with the bigger systems houses (a trend which is most likely extremely annoying to the more traditional EDA suppliers).  Altium says they currently have somewhere north of 21K seats installed.  That’s enough to put even an un-EDA EDA company on the EDA map.

Now, Altium rolls out the latest version of Altium Designer, and it has mold-breaking features like full 3D board visualization, software compilation into hardware accelerators, differential pair length tuning, a system-level configuration tool for mouse-click assembly of embedded systems, and support for the latest mixed-signal Fusion FPGAs from Actel.  Does that sound like a large feature gamut for a single software release?  Welcome to the world of Altium.

Altium has steered clear of the traditional focus of the EDA industry – the ASIC and system-on-chip design crowd perched at the 30 or so largest systems companies in the world with vast design tool budgets and equally vast high-end tool requirements.  While the rest of EDA has followed the ASIC design movement into rare air – more exotic and capable tools commanding higher and higher licensing fees from smaller and smaller numbers of qualified designers, Altium has focused on taking up the slack for the masses.  This could turn out to be a smart move as more designs can be done without resorting to high-end, high-risk ASIC system-on-chip methodologies.  We could end up with 2% of the world’s electronics designers supporting traditional EDA with very large budgets for very complex IC design tools, and the remaining 98% cranking out innovative products with something like a copy of Altium Designer on their desktop.

Altium has also begun to move into the arena of hardware-in-the-loop design with their “nanoboard” series of development boards tightly coupled to their design tool software. 

The latest (6.8) version of Altium designer kicks things off with the 3D PCB visualization capabilities brought to us, at least in part, courtesy of DirectX.  All of the capabilities that make video games cooler and easier to implement have some fascinating work-world applications as well, and if you’re a board design contractor, not much would be cooler than zipping your client a 3D rendering of what their board will look like when it comes back from production.  (fig 1).

Figure 1

The applications of this technology are largely to-be-determined, but documentation, visualization for design engineers, and locating problems that manifest themselves only when you consider the 3D view are a good start.  Plus, 3D rendering has the intangible benefit of making PCB design kinda’ fun again.  It also makes me want one of those 3D Connexion mouse controllers that all the mechanical CAD people get to use -- but that’s a different story. 

Still in the board layout domain, Altium has also added support for length-matching sets of differential pairs.  This feature is a sign of the times.  SerDes I/O was supposed to free us from the burden of matching lengths on giant busses.  Now, we just had a single differential pair to route.  Our board layout headaches would virtually disappear.  Instead, we just decided to start ganging up racks of serial transceivers to get incredible bandwidth, dealing with the signal integrity issues related to that, and now we want to start some length matching on sets of differential pairs.  Soon, maybe we’ll be super-serializing these new wide busses of serial signals.  Everything old is new again.

Other new features include live highlighting, mouse-wheel zoom, auto-generation of pdf documentation, and signal harnesses – all features that spiff up the design environment and make editing faster, simpler, and more convenient.  Another addition that’s more a sign of Altium’s changing place in the market than any technology trend is the (by customer demand) addition of DxDesigner import.  When customers are asking for import from a highly capable competitive tool – particularly one that has historically been considered “higher end,” it might indicate a shift in the relative perception of the tools by the consumer base.  Altium has already offered translators from other products such as PADS and OrCAD.

Moving into the higher-level design space, the new Altium Designer also includes an “OpenBus System Editor” – a drag-and-drop tool for constructing embedded systems.  The tool comes with a palette of objects like processors, peripherals, and memory, and, with a few mouse clicks, you can stitch together an embedded system.  This tool is presumably similar to Altera’s SoPC builder, Xilinx’s Platform Studio, and Mentor Graphics’s Platform Express – all slightly different approaches to the same high-level system design and configuration tasks.  Altium’s version should provide independence from any particular silicon platform and nice integration with the rest of the tool suite.

Altium is also sneaking into the ESL by quietly adding what they call their “Unified Hardware-Software Compiler” to this release.  While we haven’t yet seen benchmarks or results from this compiler, it is likely to be something in the general direction of Mentor Graphics’s Catapult, Impulse Accelerated Technologies’s ImpulseC compiler, Altera’s C2H compiler, or a number of other technologies that convert some form of algorithmic software-like code into hardware accelerators.  The tools in this list span an enormous gamut of capabilities, and we’ll probably have to wait a release or two to see where Altium’s new compiler fits in.

In the past, we’ve called Altium’s approach the “Microsoft Office” of design tools.  The company’s bold acquisition and assimilation of this broad range of tool technologies, combined with the persistent vision to provide those capabilities in a single, integrated, low-cost, desktop environment have been consistent for several years now.  The result should be a nice set of affordable, silicon-vendor-independent, full-featured electronic design automation tools for the majority of us who aren’t tackling high-end ASIC projects.

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by Kevin Morris, FPGA and Structured ASIC Journal

November 27, 2007

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