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Outlook 2014: Software centric ecosystems are the future of test

The world is increasingly software oriented, and the way we interact with devices is changing. Smartphones, set top boxes and even automobiles are now defined by their embedded software. With this evolution, we are challenged to keep up with the pace of innovation and the resulting complexities.

Two decades ago, testing a phone meant getting a signal. Today, the design, test and production of a mobile device involves an entire ecosystem of functionality, applications and technology, resulting in a necessarily different approach to test.

Building a test system to solve today's challenges is no longer a simple problem. Instead, it requires evaluation of expanding test requirements and an architecture that can last over time. It's important to choose a platform that can harness the technology curve while enabling abstraction and integration.

Devices under test (DUTs) are moving away from single purpose, hardware centric entities with limited capability to multipurpose, software-centric entities with endless capability. Why shouldn't your test system evolve in the same way? Making the switch from traditional instruments with vendor defined functionality to a software defined architecture, allows user defined measurements and analysis in real time.

You can even extend this flexibility through the deployment of algorithms to an onboard FPGA for increased instrument performance. With a software defined approach, the commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology powering the latest DUTs can power your test system in the same way – optimising your test architecture for years to come.

This transition under way in mobile devices offers insight into an important trend for test and measurement: the power of the software centric ecosystem. Early mobile telephones were built to make calls first and, later, to send text messages, but the capabilities were defined almost completely by the vendor.

Once the software on these devices was opened up, extended capabilities – ranging from music players to cameras to email – followed quickly. But the effectiveness of the transition was more than just an open software experience. Apple, and later Google, built robust ecosystems around their products and created a community of developers for 'apps' that accelerated usefulness.

The inherent openness and community concept, arguably, could have been fostered by traditional mobile phone providers themselves, but it was Apple and Google who shifted the focus from hardware devices to software environments, developing and deploying mobile OSs, as well as hardware to leverage them. By exposing an appropriate level of customisation to users and third party developers, they succeeded in changing fundamentally the way consumers view their mobile phones.

This same concept is now making an impact on test and measurement. Communities of developers and integrators, building on standard software platforms, are using commercial off the shelf (COTS) technology to extend the functionality of complex hardware into applications previously impossible. The level of productivity and collaboration delivered by software centric ecosystems will have a profound effect on test system design over the next three to five years.

In his book, 'The Death of Competition: Leadership and Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems', James F Moore defines a business ecosystem as: "An economic community supported by a foundation of interacting organisations and individuals – the organisms of the business world. The economic community produces goods and services of value to customers, who are themselves members of the ecosystem. The member organisms also include suppliers, lead producers, competitors and other stakeholders. Over time, they co-evolve their capabilities and roles, and tend to align themselves with the directions set by one or more central companies."

For test and measurement, cross industry collaboration is nothing new. Active industry groups, such as the IVI Foundation, PXI Systems Alliance and LXI Consortium, have been bringing industry players together for decades, but often with key gaps as outlined in Moore's description. With active participation in these groups from software specific, hardware specific and joint hardware/software vendors, the focus on enabling interoperability for proprietary architectures and ease of use for open architectures is fostering business ecosystems.

The most successful examples of current ecosystems in this industry, though, are rooted in software. National Instrument's LabVIEW is an example of application software made more valuable through its ecosystem. Significant numbers of engineers have been trained on LabVIEW and have developed add ons suitable for private application needs, as well as others through commercial vehicles like the LabVIEW Tools Network. System integrators in the NI Alliance Partner Network, as well as LabVIEW consultants, work to deploy this ecosystem. With every additional supplier, producer, competitor or other stakeholder, the value of the software to each user grows.

As Jessy Cavazos, industry director for Frost & Sullivan's Test & Measurement group, observes: "In the past, your test system was only as valuable as the investment of time and money that you made in it. Going forward, your system will benefit from the entire community of third-party suppliers, integrators, consultants and derived standards supporting the software ecosystem at its core. This is a crucial element in meeting the demands of next-generation device test."

A useful ecosystem already standardises the way we communicate with instruments – Interchangeable Virtual Instrument (IVI) drivers. By developing a common means of communicating to similar instruments across multiple vendors at the application programming interface level, the IVI Foundation reduced the learning curve for users and the development cycle for vendors.

This opened the door for third parties to create drivers, aggregation websites to house them (like IDNet on ni.com) and abstraction layers to be created on top of them. With well architected hardware abstraction layers, technology insertion for systems designed to last decades became not only possible, but also routine. The ecosystem fostered by standardisation was crucial in achieving this and it continues to grow with the recent ratification of native Microsoft .NET implementations for IVI in the past few years.

When programming FPGAs in applications like inline signal processing or DUT control, hardware and software from a single vendor are practically required to achieve the abstraction necessary to meet the skill level of most test engineers. When these solutions are delivered in the context of a software centric business ecosystem, the platform can retain as much user flexibility as a disparate or interchangeable hardware/software approach. For example, the FPGA programming capability of the LabVIEW reconfigurable I/O (RIO) architecture can incorporate third party VHDL or Xilinx CORE Generator IP inside the LabVIEW system design toolchain.

The LabVIEW Tools Network helps users exchange sample projects and compiled code to support different application spaces among users and vendors in automated test. This ecosystem opens the doors of FPGA programming to non traditional automated test spaces and offers the IP necessary to be successful.

Without a software centric ecosystem, many viable open platforms have struggled. The xTCA platforms have seen adoption in telecommunication infrastructures and interest from the high energy physics community, but they have failed to develop a strong ecosystem in automated test. The multiple form factor, communication bus and software options presented by the platform have delayed or complicated adoption by leading vendors. While efforts to rein in those options and improve them for automated test are under way within the AXIe Consortium, success or failure will be dictated by the use of a software centric ecosystem.

Over the next three to five years, automated test systems will become more software centric and ecosystems will have more impact on the value users derive from these platforms. The previous examples of instrument communication and abstracted FPGA programming are just the beginning for automated test ecosystems. As software vendors take greater advantage of their ecosystems and leverage commercialisation models for third-party IP, the scenario unfolding for mobile devices will have a transformative effect on the test and measurement industry.

National Instruments
Since 1976, National Instruments has equipped engineers and scientists with tools that accelerate productivity, innovation and discovery. NI's graphical system design approach to engineering provides an integrated software and hardware platform that speeds the development of any system needing measurement and control. The company's long-term vision and focus on improving society through its technology supports the success of its customers, employees, suppliers and shareholders.

Francis Griffiths is vice president, Europe, of National Instruments.

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Francis Griffiths

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