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National Instruments Shrinks Product, Improves Performance, and Grows Available Market Using the Xilinx Zynq All Programmable SoC

Xilinx Employee
Xilinx Employee
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National Instruments (NI) had a problem that every company would like to have: its customers wanted to put NI’s FPGA-based RIO (reconfigurable I/O) embedded control and acquisition products into more and more more applications and ship in much higher volumes. To do that, NI needed to develop an equally capable or a superior RIO product in a more rugged, much smaller form factor.


The NI LabVIEW RIO architecture combines processor and FPGA with application-specific I/O. The company’s CompactRIO is a chassis-based system that accepts a range of measurement and I/O plug-in modules. The original CompactRIO line was followed by the smaller sbRIO (single-board RIO) products that are about the size of a CD case—measuring about 4 inches by 4 inches—and have a bare-board form factor to make them easier to integrate into larger systems. NI also developed the myRIO product specifically for students. These products are all controlled by NI’s award-winning LabVIEW graphical programming platform that allows engineers to develop embedded and test systems.



NI cRIO-9068.jpg



Figure 1: The cRIO-9068 controller offers incredible performance, flexibility, and ruggedness



These customer requirements for a smaller, more rugged RIO family member designed specifically for embedded applications drove NI to develop a SOM (system on module) that would provide design engineers with the same kind of seamless design experience provided by the larger RIO products but with enhanced real-time processing capabilities in a tough, compact form factor. The resulting SOM—the sbRIO-9651—has about the same footprint as a credit card and is packaged in a solid block of aluminum to make it extremely rugged.



NI sbRIO-9651 SOM.jpg


Figure 2: The National Instruments sbRIO-9651 SOM



The NI sbRIO-9651 SOM, based on the Xilinx Zynq All Programmable SoC, combines a fully tested and validated hardware design with a complete middleware solution and NI Linux Real-Time OS. The small size means that NI’s RIO products can now be used in a much wider range of applications. For example, Airbus is using the sbRIO-9651 to create smart tools and augmented-reality glasses to be used by its technicians and assembly teams while constructing and inspecting the company’s aircraft. That’s just one example of a new application that NI’s previous RIO products could not address.



Getting to RIO


From the start, the sbRIO SOM design team at NI knew they had to achieve a small form factor for the product to succeed. Had they based the SOM’s design on separate microprocessor and FPGA devices as had been done for the original sbRIO products, there would be no room on the SOM’s circuit board for any other components (such as memory chips, power-supply devices, or I/O connectors). The design team quickly zeroed in on the Xilinx Zynq All Programmable SoC as the solution to their on-board real estate problem. They chose an industrial version of the Xilinx Zynq Z7020 SoC to suit the rugged applications the company expected to address with the new sbRIO SOM.

The Zynq SoC combines a block of programmable logic (PL) with a complete ARM-based Processing System (PS) consisting of a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore processor and a comprehensive array of commonly used peripherals (a high-performance SDRAM controller, a Flash memory controller, dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, two USB ports, two UARTs, two i2C ports, two SPI ports, general-purpose I/O ports, etc). The Zynq SoC provides all of the logic resources that the NI SOM design team needed to implement a complete LabVIEW RIO system.



Zynq Block Diagram.jpg


Figure 3: Xilinx Zynq All Programmable SoC Block Diagram



According to Eric Myers, NI’s Product Marketing Engineer for CompactRIO and Single-Board RIO, the Zynq Z7020 SoC gave NI a nice performance improvement compared to the company’s existing RIO products thanks to the dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore processor, the new Artix-7 FPGA fabric, and the high-speed interconnect between the ARM processors and the FPGA. Compared to NI’s existing board-level RIO products, which use a 400MHz single-core PowerPC microprocessor, NI’s customers have seen at least a 4x jump in processing performance just using the ARM microprocessors in the Zynq Z7020 SoC. Some customers have seen even more performance, depending on the application and the RIO features they’re using. In addition, says Myers, the new sbRIO-9651 SOM can transfer far more information between the processors and the FPGA, which translates into even better real-time performance.


Although power consumption was not the biggest design consideration, said Myers, “We certainly couldn’t use a chip that dissipates a lot of power. Zynq’s low power consumption has been helpful. Right now, we expect the SOM to use roughly 3 to 5 Watts while our other embedded products use roughly 5 to 10W.”


Myers also cites the Zynq SoC’s flexibility as a significant design factor. “Zynq was the clear option because of the size, performance, and flexibility. With everything on the same chip, we have the flexibility to add additional components. For example, several of the on-board communication mechanisms like serial I/O are actually routed through the FPGA fabric. With all of the available interconnects, we’re able to use all of the FPGA I/O pins, which adds flexibility for our customers. They can dedicate however many ports they need for specific uses, as opposed to NI trying to create a standard set of all the connections that all customers might need on the product.” Thus the Zynq SoC’s flexible, programmable I/O capabilities are passed through to NI’s sbRIO SOM customers.



Alternatives considered and not pursued


When asked if the NI design team had considered alternatives to the Zynq SoC, Myers said “We did consider developing a SOM before the Zynq SoC became available but the resulting product would not have made as much sense. The SOM would have been bigger; we wouldn’t have had the performance; we would not have had the flexibility. So the Zynq SoC really helped us to make our idea into a reality.”


Myers continued: “We had already developed several controllers based on the Zynq SoC prior to embarking on the SOM project and this really helped reduce our development cycle. By the time we started the project we had an extensive set of libraries and a large code base, which had been developed for the myRIO and the several versions of the CompactRIO-9068. All of these products use the industrial Zynq 7020 SoC. The ability to standardize on one chip for a broad range of products has definitely helped us to shorten our individual product development cycles. Certainly, there were new features we needed to develop specifically for the SOM, but having the prior Zynq experience through the development of prior products definitely helped.”





The NI and Xilinx technology partnership has provided engineers and scientists with tools to create world-changing innovations for more than a decade. NI has paired the newest Xilinx FPGAs with industry-leading processors in successive generations of the company’s most advanced products, ranging from NI FlexRIO modules to CompactRIO controllers with the LabVIEW graphical programming platform. These products allow NI customers to create smarter systems in much less time than more conventional design methods. The Zynq All Programmable SoC was an obvious choice for the latest generation of systems based on NI’s LabVIEW RIO architecture because it combines two complex sub-systems into a single chip-PL and PS—reducing size, cost, and complexity while improving performance.


The integrated Zynq-7020 SoC delivers a 4x to 6x performance boost in system-level benchmarks compared to a similarly priced, previous-generation RIO design that’s based on separate processor and FPGA chips. The performance improvements stem from a combination of improved processor clock rate and processor core count, higher bandwidth connectivity between processor and the FPGA fabric, and software efficiency improvements gained by migrating to Linux and the ARM processor architecture.

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