Thursday, October 02, 2008

AutoTestCon 2008

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was at AutoTestCon in Salt Lake City a few weeks ago. This was my first visit to this MIL/AERO conference and tradeshow.

I was greeted to the Salt Palace Convention Center by banners with images of fighter jets and bombers over Monument Valley and Delicate Arch.

I was there to give a presentation on IVI, be part of a panel discussion on LXI, and to support a demo for the LXI Consortium...

Here's a photo of the demo I built for the consortium, using a Rohde & Schwarz FSL Spectrum Analyzer, a Keithley 2910 RF Signal Generator, two Agilent E5818A Trigger Boxes, an NI 8353 quad-core 1U PXI Controller, and NI LabVIEW 8.6.

The other demo in the booth consisted of Matlab and image processing software from The Mathworks, Agilent E5818A Trigger Boxes, and 1394 cameras from Point Grey Research. Colloquially called "the bouncing ball demo", it used a military grade Playskool Busy Basics Busy Popper for projectile measurements.

Okay, the part about "military grade" was a joke. The demo was there to make noise and entice people into the booth. Shown in the photo are Conrad Proft, from Agilent, and Rob Purser, from The Mathworks.

Both demos showed LXI features such as IEEE 1588 timing and distributing triggers across a network.

On Monday, I gave a presentation about IVI instrument driver technology at one of the seminars. This was just a basic introduction into what IVI drivers are, and an update on the status of current work in the IVI Foundation.

The tone was set for this presentation a few seconds into my talk. One attendee raised his hand and said, "IVI drivers don't work."

"I see it's going to be a tough crowd", I replied.

In this particular case, the user had obtained several IVI-COM drivers from his instrument vendor, and all but one failed to communicate correctly with his instruments. He had also received an IVI-C driver for an instrument from a different vendor, and he was unable to make it work until he got National Instruments involved to fix it for him.

This is a good point for me to point out that you don't have to depend on your instrument vendor for your instrument drivers. The National Instruments Instrument Driver Network (IDNet) contains instrument drivers for thousands of instruments from hundreds of different vendors, including IVI drivers, LabVIEW Plug and Play drivers, and VXIplug&play drivers.

Many of the drivers on IDNet are marked as "NI Certified", which means...

Certified instrument drivers comply with instrument driver standards including programming style, error handling, documentation, and functional testing. Certified drivers ensure consistency among instrument drivers and, therefore, improve ease of use. They also provide source code so that you can modify, customize, optimize, debug, and add functionality to the instrument driver. All National Instruments certified instrument drivers receive NI support.

I was also on a panel discussion about LXI. We presented to about fifteen people.

A week later, we recorded a webcast for T&M World Magazine with the same material. You can view a replay of the webcast by registering on the T&M World website.

We had time for questions and answers during both versions of the presentation. Additional questions from the webcast will eventually be posted with answers on the LXI website.

Interestingly, most of the questions at AutoTestCon related to GPIB. Conrad Proft, from Agilent, had slides that showed examples where LXI works better than GPIB (over long distances) and RS-485 (cabling).

One question was whether companies are going to continue to support GPIB. Conrad from Agilent voiced his company's continued commitment to GPIB. I added that I believe that many people are still building GPIB-based test systems, and that NI will continue to support our GPIB users. (Later that week, NI announced our new PCI Express GPIB controllers that support a nearly 8 megabyte/second transfer rate, are RoHS compliant, and use only 1.1W of power.)

Another audience member, perhaps a little caught up in the excitement of LAN-based instrumentation, asked, "Why would anyone still use GPIB? It's slow. The cables are so inflexible."

My jaw dropped at this. I bet if you polled all the AutoTestCon attendees, just about every one of them is using GPIB, and is going to continue to use GPIB. So my answer began with, "Because it just works!".

"The GPIB cables are shielded and have rugged connectors that screw in and don't have plastic tabs that break off."

[Bringing it back to LXI] "...the message of the LXI Consortium is that it's important to ensure that LXI works well with other buses."

The reality is that our users are going to develop "hybrid" systems, using a mix of bus technologies. Every bus has pros and cons. GPIB has low communications latency and is rugged. LXI has cheaper cabling and works well over extraordinarily long distances. PXI and PXI Express have high communications bandwidth and low latency.

And that's why it's my job at National Instruments to help ensure that all forms of I/O work well in LabVIEW.

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