Altium marketing was very good — promising a unified design environment when we were looking into upgrading our electronic CAD tools in November, 2006, after almost 25 years with OrCAD.
Figure 1. Xilinx Spartan 3AN FPGA on the Altium Nanoboard 3000
Altium made a serious attempt to create an environment that would include all the tools required for embedded development. At the time, OrCAD had no such plans and their FPGA support was poor. We tested the Altium suite for the schematic capture with a Xilinx-Digilent Spartan 3 Starter kit before purchasing the software. A few board designs were imported from OrCAD. The Nanoboard 3000 shown above came with a front-end licence for schematic capture, various C compilers, and a C-to-hardware compiler. It was bought a year after the initial purchase, but the promised add-in boards for the Nanoboard range faded as it was difficult to compete on price with Avnet and others.
In the patent minefield around debug infrastructure, Altium’s logic analyzer block was attractive, however, the trace was not exportable and the logic analyzer trace could not easily be placed into documentation.
The TSK3000A instruction trace was very shallow, including all instructions, not just “branches taken” as in general tracing research. There was very little useful documentation on the TSK3000A core, possibly due to lawsuites from MIPS at the time. There was no mention of MIPS in the documentation, but it was essentially a DLX core that must have come with one of the companies that were acquired. It was never upgraded. At the time, I was attempting a PhD in real-time systems, and the above was important at the low-end to try close the loop from specification, to instrumentation, to measurement, and possible back in an iterative loop to validate real-time systems. Any FPGA resources for instrumentation would be useful. There was never really any intention of laying out complex 1000 pin components due to the research, as there are no points allocated for designing what can already be bought.
We only use Altium schematic capture and layout tools, and even these have not been used as much as we would have liked. Our main efforts were spent in embedded software, but we are encouraged by the upgrades to the routing in the 2017 version, and hope to make some boards again to address debug infrastructure.
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