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How Xilinx All Programmable technology has fundamentally changed business at National Instruments

Xilinx Employee
Xilinx Employee
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National Instruments Week, held last August in Austin, Texas, might not have been “all Xilinx, all the time” but it sure seemed that way. During Academic Forum day, even before the main event stated, National Instruments (NI) announced an exciting product for engineering students called the NI myRIO hardware/software development platform, which is based on the Zynq-7010 All Programmable SoC. About the size of a small paperback book (so that it easily drops into a backpack), the NI myRIO features the Zynq SoC’s dual-core  ARM Cortex-A9 processor and 7 series FPGA logic cells for hardware and software development. The NI myRIO box sports ten analog inputs, six analog outputs, left and right audio channels, 40 digital I/O lines (SPI, I2C, UARD, PWM, rotary encoder) and an on-board, 3-axis accelerometer, and two 34-pin expansion headers. Most of that functionality comes straight from the on-board Zynq-7010 SoC.


NI myRIO.jpg


The new Zynq-based NI myRIO easily drops into a student backpack


The NI myRIO can serve as a product development platform or as a data-acquisition unit. Students develop code for this platform using a special myRIO edition of NI’s LabVIEW graphical design software. One of the most amazing things about this package is that the NI myRIO hardware and the bundled development software license cost an incredibly low $495.


The NI myRIO was only one of three major NI announcements built upon the Xilinx Zynq SoC. The second new product, announced on Tuesday, is the NI CompactRIO-9068 measurement and control platform. NI introduced its first RIO (reconfigurable I/O) platform in 2004. It was based on a mix of discrete processors, FPGAs, and pluggable I/O modules. The addition of an FPGA into the NI RIO platform permits large performance improvements, on the order of 10x or more.


NI cRIO-9068.jpg


The NI CompactRIO-9068 uses a Zynq-7020 SoC to boost performance 10x


NI now offers more than 70 different I/O modules for its multiple generations of the NI cRIO platforms. The newly announced NI cRIO-9068, based on a Zynq-7020 SoC, delivers 6x the performance of the company’s previous-generation cRIO-9074 platform, which was based on a trajectory application that uses a cubic spline algorithm. Even with the 6x performance improvement, the cRIO-9068 processor utilization for this benchmark is only 11% compared to 72% processor utilization for the older cRIO-9074. The end result: significantly better performance in process-control loops for applications based on the cRIO platform.


The final Zynq-based product was introduced on third day of the show,; but, before describing that product, you should know what NI upper management thinks about Xilinx All Programmable devices. During his keynote presentation on Wednesday, Mike Santori, who is NI’s Business and Technology Fellow, said simply “Zynq is the LabVIEW RIO on a chip.” In his Tuesday keynote presentation attended by about 4000 enthusiastic NI customers, Eric Starkloff, NI’s VP of Global Marketing, said “custom hardware design is dead” and that the future belongs to platform-based design. The platform he’s referring to is essentially the Xilinx Zynq SoC architectural platform, as embodied in NI’s various RIO board- and box-level platforms.


Later the same day during a panel discussion among NI executive management held for the press, NI COO and CFO Alex Davern spoke about the benefits of Xilinx All Programmable technology in the company’s Vector Signal Transceiver (VST), which NI introduced a year ago.  The NI VST is a $45,000 to $51,000 PXIe instrument module that’s based on a Xilinx Virtex-6 FPGA. According to Davern, the NI VST is the most financially successful product that NI has ever launched.


NI VST.jpg


The NI Vector Signal Transceiver, based on a Virtex-6 FPGA, is NI’s most successful product to date


The full capabilities of the FPGA in the NI VST are exposed to the customer through NI’s LabVIEW FPGA software, which enables significant performance improvement for applications that need the speed boost. Davern said that the introduction of the VST “fundamentally changed” and elevated NI’s status as a supplier of leading-edge test and measurement technology in the eyes of high-level management at NI’s key customers. Note: public endorsements of Xilinx All Programmable technology in front of an assembled press corps simply do not get much better than this.


Which brings us to the third Zynq-based product announcement made during NI Week. This is a product that NI intends to give away. As in free. The product is called the NI roboRIO robotic controller, specifically designed for the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC). The FRC event is a particular passion for NI’s founder, President, and CEO Dr. James Truchard. Every FRC team competing in 2015 will receive a free NI roboRIO to control its robot, programmed in NI LabVIEW of course.


NI roboRIO.jpg 


Every FRC team competing in 2015 will receive a free Zynq-based NI roboRIO to control its robot


The NI roboRIO features analog inputs, digital inputs and outputs, relay outputs, PWM outputs, SPI and I2C ports, USB, and of course an Ethernet connection. No surprise, it’s based on a Xilinx Zynq-7020 SoC. That’s right, NI is driving familiarity with the Zynq platform and Xilinx All Programmable technology down to the high school level.


Xilinx All Programmable devices have literally and visibly remade NI’s businesses for the better and NI is not shy in making that relationship public. In fact, one of the many lapel buttons that NI made up for this event says “Smarter is Better.” NI gets it. How cool is that?


NI Week Button Smarter is Better.jpg

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