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Programming Hardware

An Open Source Hardware Development Tool 68

LuxuryYacht writes "The PLAICE is an open source hardware and software project developing a powerful in-circuit development tool that combines in one device the features of a FLASH Programmer, Memory Emulator, and High Speed Multi-Channel Logic Analyzer. It runs uClinux. The logic analyzer features up to 200MHz sampling rates and up to 32 input channels. The logic analyzer Java client supports up to 200MHz sampling rates, user-controlled filtering operations, time line in diagrams, transfer rates, and user configurable drawing modes. The Java client supports access via almost any PC with a serial port and uses the RXTX serial library with support for 34 platforms including Linux, Windows, and Solaris. Java client plugins include an SPI and I2C bus protocol analyzer, conversion of timing analysis to state analysis, and post-processing functions."
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An Open Source Hardware Development Tool

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  • That's actually pretty damn cool. What's the catch?
  • by Wesley Felter ( 138342 ) <> on Monday April 30, 2007 @11:46PM (#18936875) Homepage
    An open-source logic analyzer for $150 sounds nice, but the site is seriously lacking in screen shots.
  • That's nice (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tftp ( 111690 ) on Monday April 30, 2007 @11:46PM (#18936883) Homepage
    But logic analyzers are history. If you want to debug logic today you use ChipScope. That's not just because it is easier, but because breakout connectors (Mictor etc.) are expensive, large, and they disrupt the timing of the circuit.

    As memory emulator this device may be useful sometimes, but many MCUs today come with internal RAM, and those that don't - they expect DDR2 speeds, and you can't emulate that.

    This can be a full-featured Microblaze development system, though, with tons of samples. I think that's its best value. MicroBlaze was always poorly supported by Linux, as opposed to Nios (which Altera itself supports.) If we have, finally, a working [uc] Linux port to MB that alone is a great achievement. When I looked a year or two ago there was only one, non-functioning, port to a hardware that did not exist.

    • I spoke to DigiView a few weeks ago about the problems with their $500 doo-dad and they still don't care. The only way to drive it is to run a windows app with real or simulated mouse clicks to trigger and export data. If more than one are in a system, they have no way to know which is which. I told them that their lack of automation capability would lead either me or someone else to design a replacement. It looks like someone has.

      If this works the way it looks like it will, that'll be a well deserved s
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by evanbd ( 210358 )
      History? Since when? I've been doing a bit of PIC microcontroller programming lately, and for debugging the various communications between a PIC and various peripherals this sounds perfect. I'll be seriously investigating getting one of these. Mostly the timing of such circuits isn't the issue, it's seeing the data actually on the channel without adding lots of debug code I don't have time or space for. This sounds like a great tool for the serious hobbyist.
      • Re:That's nice (Score:5, Interesting)

        by tftp ( 111690 ) on Tuesday May 01, 2007 @12:54AM (#18937261) Homepage
        Since when? Well, for some designs (like yours) they are still useful, and I am glad that there is still someone out there who knows which end of the soldering iron to hold onto.

        But in an industrial setting they are quickly replaced by JTAG-connected tools; ChipScope [] in particular (if you are a Xilinx slave) is great because it captures the signals into the local, very fast RAM, and then sends you the snapshot over a slower JTAG connection. The snapshot is true to what is really happening, and if you design a DDR controller (or faster) then just forget the external wires, they are useless at those speeds. And most of modern commercial designs push the devices to the limit. That's what makes standalone logic analyzers less appealing to a mass manufacturer. Logic analyzers in such conditions become tools of last resort, just like ICEs, where you have to spend a day just preparing your board for testing.

        Myself, if I do not have an FPGA in between (and so ChipScope is not an option) then I just use an oscilloscope. I have a 4-channel, inexpensive Infiniium model, and 3 probes is the most I ever needed; staring at the schematic does the rest :-)

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by networkBoy ( 774728 )
          You do realize that tektronix doesn't use mictor any more. They use compression probes that land on micro pads on your system board and are perfectly happy at DDR and DDR2 speeds.
          LAs are alive and well. Your tools only work once the board is up and running, till then you still need to see raw I/O and such.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by c_oflynn ( 649487 )
          I got a Logicport (500 MHz, 32 channel logic analyzer for $350) some time ago, and never looked back. I use it for FPGA designs where I want to capture a lot more data.

          I always bring out some spare pins to a header, that becomes my debug port. Then you can route any internal signals to this header. Provided you're not trying to debug anything insanely high-speed, it works great.

          It also supports the SPI/I2C/Serial decoding like this project. Only downside is the software is Windows only, and it uses USB so n
    • Re:That's nice (Score:4, Insightful)

      by LuxuryYacht ( 229372 ) on Tuesday May 01, 2007 @01:01AM (#18937285) Homepage
      The logic analyzer design is targeted at debugging logic outside of the FPGA and the board itself. ChipScope is supported by the board for debug of logic inside the onboard Spartan-3E FPGA.

      The memory emulator is currently targeted at FLASH devices.
    • Re:That's nice (Score:4, Informative)

      by Alioth ( 221270 ) <no@spam> on Tuesday May 01, 2007 @05:35AM (#18938361) Journal
      There are plenty of embedded microprocessors around that do NOT expect DDR2 speeds. Many digital circuits simply don't need a 2GHz space heater and run just fine with a 2MHz Z80 or equivalent (indeed, the Z80 is still manufactured and popular in its 'classic' 40 pin DIL form. I have one on my work table that was manufactured less than 6 months ago). Many many products use chips of this sort of class.

      Just because there's a clamour for ever faster (and hotter) chips in PCs and servers, it does not follow that the same is true of an embedded computer. If a 4MHz processor works for a particular application, there is absolutely no benefit in using something that 'expects DDR2'. Normal 70ns static RAM and flash chips are sold by the millions because they are cheap, electronically simple to interface, and low speed circuits are much cheaper and easier to lay out on a PCB. You don't need DDR2 on a weather station embedded computer or washing machine.

      Many microcontrollers like the Atmega can interface with external memory (even though they have some internal flash and RAM).
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by wpiman ( 739077 )
      I cannot say a bad word about chipscope, it is a great tool- but I must say that Mictor connectors do not disrupt the timing of the circuit if implemented correctly. Mictor means matched impedance connector. And often times, you need to look outside the device. Chipscope and its Altera equivalent are for internal signals, and the amount of data you can view depends on how much memory you have left in your device. An external logic analyzer has infinite more samples.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by acarguy ( 1095819 )
      Well, logic analyzers aren't dead just yet. I work for Agilent (used to be HP), and we still make quite a few of 'em. Although the JTAG-based tools for internal FPGA logic analysis like Chip Scope are very useful and relatively inexpensive, they present some limitations (like consuming the internal block RAM of the chip) that traditional LAs don't have. Like anything, there are tradeoffs. Agilent has some tools that customize our logic analyzers to make internal FPGA measurements more easily and bridge
  • This thing sounds like it would be great for an engine management system.. 200mhz sampling and 32 input channels == awesome. Cost is the only remaining variable, although I see it is based off the xilinx spartan 3e starter kit which is cheap cheap cheap.
  • supports access via almost any PC with a serial port
    But those are getting scarce nowadays, on low-price PC systems and laptops.
    • by bersl2 ( 689221 )
      Then get a USB<->RS-232 converter.
      • Re:RS-232? (Score:4, Informative)

        by jcgf ( 688310 ) on Tuesday May 01, 2007 @01:12AM (#18937345)
        Yeah, the only problem is those never work ;)
        • by Prune ( 557140 )
          That's bullshit. We've used an FTDI USBserial chip and works fine.
          • Works fine until you have to rely on the connection for any amount of time. USB->RS-232 was tried for some Wheelchair management systems that a client once wanted... It either didn't work or couldn't reliably work. This conversion is not a solution to people who require Serial Access.

            Also failed for people who needed Serial connection to their GPS mapping gear whilst doing fieldwork for the Department of Primary Industry.

            What did yours "work fine" for?
            • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

              by fractoid ( 1076465 )
              It depends a lot on what adapter you use. I too used FTDI-based USB-to-RS232 adapters at my last job and some of them (can't remember brands, sorry, it was a while back) used to wedge themselves after a couple of hours continuous use. Fine for copying stuff off a device but not good for automation. Then again, we did find one brand that was solid even after a weekend of hammering data back and forth. The FTDI chips seem solid, I'd tend towards blaming the low-budget boards they get used in.
          • by fabs64 ( 657132 )
            The voltages required by the serial port spec tend to disagree with usb somewhat.
            • by Prune ( 557140 )
              There are various of easy to use switchmode converter ICs that can be used.
              • by fabs64 ( 657132 )
                I'm sure there are, but grab one of the converters and chuck a multimeter on it sometimes, see if it lines up. Hell, most laptop serial ports don't.
    • Re:RS-232? (Score:4, Informative)

      by tftp ( 111690 ) on Tuesday May 01, 2007 @12:29AM (#18937143) Homepage
      I see that the board has Ethernet transceiver installed, and the connector. However the SoftTEMAC IP from Xilinx is not free, and because of that you can't use Ethernet. Virtex-4 (and 5) FPGAs have HardTEMAC which is not just free, it is a hard core in the FPGA, so it is ready to use, and it can do Gigabit Ethernet as well. Because of that I may question the wisdom of picking a S3 platform that is some $ cheaper than V4 but requires a $5,000 IP to do something really useful (Ethernet connectivity is not too much to ask for these days.) Or, alternatively, write your own [] [T]EMAC module, it's not impossible but you need to be a decent FPGA coder to even get started.
      • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

        by plasmoidia ( 935911 )
        If it doesn't have to run all the time, you can use the Xilinx soft-core EMAC (10/100) for free. The catch is that it times out after about 8-9 hours, at which time it stops functioning. It is limiting, but it will get the job done if you cannot afford to buy the full core.
    • supports access via almost any PC with a serial port
      But those are getting scarce nowadays, on low-price PC systems and laptops.
      Just get a USB-to-RS232 adapter. A nice one will work fairly well and is not too expensive. Just don't get the dirt cheap ones; they might not work. But we use USB adapters all the time at work for new laptops that lack a real serial port.
    • But those are getting scarce nowadays, on low-price PC systems and laptops.

      How much lower price can you get than a ten year old Pentium? ;-P

      Seriously though, two days ago I bought a new Gigabyte AM2 socket mobo (don't have the model number with me now) for $A100 which has an RS232 connector on the back. If you want cheaper than that, buy second hand.

    • by Alioth ( 221270 )
      USB attached RS232 ports cost trivial amounts of money and are available from virtually any computer store.
    • supports access via almost any PC with a serial port
      But those are getting scarce nowadays, on low-price PC systems and laptops.
      You can get serial ports on a PCI card.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 01, 2007 @12:24AM (#18937113)
    If Microsoft gets what it wants, it will be hard to get hardware that runs Linux. Well that's Microsoft's dream anyway. In order to protect precious DRM Microsoft has ordained that only 'bullet proof' hardware will be allowed to run in HD mode with Vista. Their spec even says that unencrypted signals must run only on inner layers of pc boards.

    Being able to create Linux friendly hardware could, if Microsoft succeeds, be necessary if we are to have high performance video and audio.

    This project is not alone as open source hardware. My current favorite is the Arduino board using an Atmel microcontroller. I am also playing with the Make controller that uses an Arm.
    • I agree, that's not as unlikely as one might think, what with AMD buying ATI etc. However, as long as they sell the processors (CPU or GPU) as separate parts, I'm sure you'll always be able to buy high-end mobos and cards that'll work just fine with Linux etc.

      Once you've got your BSD or whatever on the box, getting at the DRM-protected stuff should not be a problem.

      However the real problem may well be - as it already is - getting decent Linux drivers...
  • by plasmoidia ( 935911 ) <> on Tuesday May 01, 2007 @12:56AM (#18937265)
    The hardware is not open source. Actually, the hardware is a Spartan-3E Starter Kit board. Nothing special there. What will be open source is the *firmware* (as well as the software running on top). Semantics aside, this should be an interesting project. This seems to be an attempt to build an entire system in an FPGA with open source firmware/software. As others have expressed, I am not sure how useful it will be as a logic analyzer, but perhaps this could be a start for more open source firmware projects.
  • This could actually be useful... at $150 a piece, this might be worth purchasing for educational use.
  • Sure they are cool, but this is only some guys throwing some IP at a commercial eval board.

    Nothing to get overly exited about, really.

    ( and i thought microblaze was $$ anyway.. there are free alternatives out there, such as Leon3, or OpenRISC )

    • by taniwha ( 70410 )
      well there's nothing wrong with an open source FPGA project - more power to them - remember that these days chip design is really just software - frozen and made real - others can use their source and make their own.

      IMHO the big problem is choosing an FPGA dev system - whatever they choose it probably wont be available a year from now when the FPGA designers release their next generation and want to push that

      • by nurb432 ( 527695 )
        Except its NOT a opensource FPGA project. Its an open source Software project, to run on a FPGA.

        The hardware is a commercial product.

        I think a year for 'obsolescence' of a product generation isn't too accurate, more like 5 years.. i can still buy xilinx products 2 generations back ( or the current compatible generation )
        • by taniwha ( 70410 )
          you may be able to buy the parts - my point is that the development systems don't last that long (the marketting guys want you to get the dev system for the fancy new generation with the better margins ....)
  • I looked around the page and I really want one of these. However I dont see a method of actually buying one or the price.
  • The listed site links to it itself-- is where it is getting the logic analyzer hardware design from. It's not clear to me what is adding, other than porting the design to the Spartan-3E proto board (from a Spartan-3 proto board).

    A commercial LA system has carefully designed probes to reduce the load on the signals being probed. I made a home-made PCI data capture "card" by soldering stubs to a blank PCI connector, and connecting directly to
    • The PLAICE adds in-circuit Flash programming and emulation as well as a 32-bit cpu running uClinux to the project. It will also add USB and Ethernet connectivity vs just serial.
  • There are more Open Sourse hardware projects than just this one example. Here is another that may have a slightly wider potential user base.... []

That does not compute.