Board Developers Have Already Faced Many Chip Challenges

By John Blyler

Much has been written about the similarities between the technical challenges facing the printed-circuit-board (PCB) and chip-development markets. Those of us who started our careers in the PCB world—anyone remember GenRad? —know that the challenges faced by today's chip designers were first encountered by yesterday's board designers. Board-level designers, for example, faced the challenges of data-format standards, signal interference, thermal distribution, and timing speed years before they became a headache to chip designers.

This doesn't mean that all of the challenges have been met. Consider one that still vexes both the board and chip communities: system integration. In the chip world, intellectual-property (IP) integration is becoming a growing concern. For board designers, the integration of complex system-on-a-chip (SoC) packages (including RF, FPGAs, and ASICs) continues to be an issue. Today, many board-level engineers must design across "black-box" boundaries from RF modules and proprietary FPGA-ASICs to PCB. Such activities are fraught with design challenges including data transfer between design tools, lack of process automation, team collaboration issues, philosophical and virtual ownership boundaries, system-level optimization, and system-level verification.

System optimization, such as I/O optimization, optimized functional partitioning, and timing analysis and verification, becomes a necessity for many board designers. Such optimization has become especially key because of shortened design times and competitive product pricing. Balancing optimization needs with the realities of integration has become more and more difficult.

Another area that remains a challenge to board developers is the mixing of RF and digital-design domains and implementation. Here, the problem is twofold. The first challenge involves implementing the RF circuit with the existing digital design onto an already crowded printed-circuit board. The second obstacle deals with the signal interference issues that are common to multi-RF front-end systems. Perhaps the most common example of a PCB design issue that preceded similar challenges in the chip world is the implementation and programming of multicore systems.

These topic areas and many more are examined in this issue of Embedded Intel® Solutions magazine. As always, I'm eager to read your thoughts on these issues. I can be reached at jblyler@extensionmedia.com.