Posts Tagged ‘novena’

Novena Update

Saturday, October 4th, 2014

It’s been four months since we finished Novena’s crowd funding campaign, and we’ve made a lot of progress since then. Since then, a team of people have been hard at work to make Novena a reality.

It takes many hands to build a product of this complexity, and we couldn’t do it without our dedicated and hard-working team at AQS. Above is a photo from the conference room where we did the T1 plastics review in Dongguan, China.

In this update, we’ll be discussing progress on the Casing, Electronics, Accessories, Firmware and the Community.


Case construction update
We’re very excited that the Novena cases we’re carrying around are now made of entirely production-process hardware — no more prototypes. A total of 10 injection molding tools, many of the family molds, have been opened so far; for comparison, a product like NeTV or chumby had perhaps 3-4 tools.

For those not familiar with injection molding, it’s a process whereby plastic is molded into a net shape from hot, high pressure liquid plastic forced into a cavity made out of hardened steel. The steel tool is a masterpiece of engineering in itself – it’s a water-cooled block weighing in at about a ton, capable of handling pressures found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, and the internal surfaces are machined to tolerances better than the width of a human hair. And on top of that, it contains a clockwork of moving pieces, with dozens of ejector pins, sliders, lifters and parting surfaces coming apart and back together again smoothly over thousands of cycles. It’s amazing that these tools can be crafted in a couple of months, yet here we are.

With so much complexity involved, it’s no surprise that the tools require several iterations of refinement to get absolutely perfect. In tooling jargon, the iterations are referred to as T0, T1, T2…etc. You’re doing pretty good if you can go to full production at T2; we’re currently at T1 stage. The T1 plastics are 99% there, with a few issues relating to flow and knit lines, as well as a couple of spots where the plastic is warping during cooling or binding to the tool during ejection and causing some deformation. This manifests itself in a couple spots where the seams aren’t as tight as we’d like them to be in the case.

Most people have only seen products of finished tooling, so I thought I’d share what a pretty typical T0 shot looks like, particularly for a large and complex tool like the Novena case base part. Test shots like this are typically done in colors that highlight defects and/or the resin is available as scrap, hence the gray color. The final units will be black.

There’s a lot going on with this piece of plastic, so below is a visual guide to some of the artifacts.

In the green boxes are a set of “sink marks”. These happen when the opposite side of the plastic has a particularly thin or thick feature. These areas will cool faster or slower than the bulk of the plastic, causing these regions to pucker slightly and cause what looks like a bit of a shadow. It’s particularly noticeable on mirror-finish parts. In this case, the sink marks are due to the plastic underneath the nut bosses of the Peek array being much thinner than the surrounding plastic. The fix to this problem was to slightly thicken that region, reducing the overall internal clearance of the case by 0.8mm. Fortunately, I had designed in a little extra clearance margin to the case so this was possible.

The red arrow points to a “knit line”. This is a region where plastic flow meets within the tool. Plastic, as it is injected into the cavity, will tend to flow from one or more gates, and where the molten plastic meets itself, it will leave a hairline scar. It’s often located at points of symmetry between the gates where the plastic is injected (on this tool, there are four gates located underneath the spot where the rubber feet go — gates are considered cosmetically unattractive and thus they are strategically placed to hide their location).

The white feathery artifacts, as indicated by the orange arrow, are flow marks. In this case, it seems plastic was cooling a bit too quickly within the tool, causing these streaks. This problem can often be fixed by adjusting the injection pressure, cycle length, and temperature. This tweaking is done using test shots on the molding machine, with one parameter at a time tweaked, shot after shot, until its optimum point is found. This process can sometimes take hundreds of shots, creating a small hill of scrap plastic as a by-product.

Most of these gross defects were fixed by T1, and the plastic now looks much closer to production-grade (and the color is now black). Below is the T1 shot in initial testing after transferring live hardware into the plastics.

There’s still a few issues around fit and finish. The rear lip is binding to the tool slightly during ejection, which is causing a little bit of deformation. Also, the panel we added at the last minute to accommodate oversized expansion boards isn’t mating as tightly as we’d like it to. But, despite all of these issues, the case feels much more solid than the prototypes, and the gas piston mechanism is finally consistent and really smooth.

Front bezel update
The front bezel of Novena’s case (not to be confused with the aluminum LCD bezel) has gone through a couple of changes since the campaign. When we closed funding, it had two outward-facing USB ports and one switch. Now, it has two switches and one outward-facing USB port and one inward-facing USB port.

One switch is for power — it goes directly to the power board and thus can be used to turn the system on and off even when the main board is fully powered down.

The other switch is wired to a user key press, and the intent is to facilitate Bluetooth association for keyboards that are being stupid. It seems some keyboards can take up to a half-minute to cycle through — something (presumably, it’s trying to be secure) — before they connect. There are hacks you can do to bypass that, but it requires you to run a script on the host, and the idea is by pressing this button users can trigger a convenience script to get past the utter folly of Bluetooth. This switch also doubles as a wake-up button for when the system is in suspend.

As for the USB ports, there are still four ports total in the design, but the configuration is now as follows:

  • Two higher-current capable ports on the right
  • One standard-current capable port on the front
  • One standard-current capable port facing toward the Peek Array
  • In other words, we face one USB port toward the inside of the machine; since half the fun of Novena is modding the hardware, we figure making a USB port available on the inside is at least as useful as making it available on the outside.

    For those who don’t do hardware mods, it’s also a fine place to plug small dongles that you generally keep permanently attached, such as a radio transceiver for your keyboard. It’s a little inconvenient to initially plug in the dongle, but keeping the radio transceiver dongle facing the inside helps protect it from damage when you throw your laptop into your travel bag.

    Speakers
    We toyed with several iterations of speaker selection for Novena. One of the core ideas behind the design was to make speaker choice something every user would be encouraged to make on their own. One driving reason for this is some people really listen to music on their laptop when they travel, but others simply rely upon the speaker for notification tones and would prefer to use headphones for media capabilities.

    Physics dictates that high-quality sound requires a certain amount of space and mass, and so users who have a more relaxed fidelity requirement should be able to reclaim the space and weight that nicer speakers would require.

    Kurt Mottweiler, the designer of the Heirloom model, had selected a nice but very compact off-the-shelf speaker, the PUI ASE06008MR-LW150-R, for the Heirloom. We evaluated that in the context of the standard Novena model and found that it fit well into the Peek Array and it also had acceptable fidelity, particularly for its size. And so, we adopted this as the standard offering for audio. However, it will be provided with a mounting kit that allows for easy removal so users who need to reclaim the space they take, or who want to go the other way and put in larger speakers, can do so with ease.


    PVT2 Mainboard
    The Novena mainboard went through a minor revision prior to mass production. The 21-point change list can be viewed here; the majority of the changes focused on replacing or updating components that were at risk of EOL. The two most significant changes from a design standpoint were the addition of an internal FPC header to connect to the front bezel cluster, and a dedicated hardware RTC module.

    The internal FPC header was added to improve the routing of signals from the mainboard to the front bezel cluster. We had to run two USB ports, plus a smattering of GPIOs and power to the front bezel and the original scheme required multiple cables to execute the connection. The updated design condenses all of this into a single FPC, thereby simplifying the design and improving reliability.

    A dedicated hardware RTC module was added because we couldn’t get the RTC built into the i.MX6 to perform well. It seems that the CPU simply had a higher leakage on the RTC than reported in the datasheet, and thus the lifetime of the RTC when the system was turned off was measured in, at best, minutes. We made the call that there was too much risk in continuing to develop with the on-board RTC and opted to include an external, dedicated RTC module that we knew would work. In order to increase compatibility with other i.MX6 platforms, we picked the same module used by the Solid-Run Hummingboard, the NXP PCF8523T/1.

    GPBB
    The GPBB got a face-lift and a couple of small mods to make it more hacker-friendly.

    I think everything looks a little bit nicer in matte black, so where it doesn’t compromise production integrity we opted to use a matte black soldermask with gold finish.

    Beyond the obvious cosmetic change, the GPBB also features an adjustable I/O voltage for the digital outputs. The design change is still going through testing, but the concept is to by default allow a 5V/3.3V selectable setting in software. However, the lower voltage can also be adjusted to 2.5V and 1.8V by changing a single resistor (R12), which I also labelled “I/O VOLTAGE SET” and made a 1206 part so soldering novices can make the change themselves.

    In our experience, we’re finding an ever-increasing gulf between the voltage standards used by hobbyists and what we’re actually finding inside equipment we need to reverse engineer; and thus, to accommodate both applications a flexible voltage output selection mechanism was added to the GPBB.

    Desktop Passthrough
    The desktop case originally included just the Novena mainboard, and the front panel breakout. It turns out this makes power management awkward, as the overall power management system for the case was designed with the assumption there is a helper microcontroller managing a master cut-off switch.

    Complexity is the devil, and it’s been hard enough to get the software going for even a single configuration. So in net we found it would be cheaper to introduce a new piece of hardware rather than deal with multiple code configurations.

    Therefore, desktop systems are now getting a power pass-through board as part of the offering. It’s a simple PCBA that contains just the STM32 controller and power switch of the full Senoko board. This allows us to use a consistent gross power management architecture across both the desktop and the laptop systems.

    Of course, this is swatting a fly with a sledgehammer, but this sledgehammer costs as much as the flyswatter and it’s inconvenient to carry both a fly swatter and a sledgehammer around. And so yes, we’re using a 32-bit ARM CPU to read the state of a pushbutton and flip a GPIO, and yes, this is all done using a full multi-threaded real time operating system (ChibiOS) running underneath it. It feels a little silly, which is why we broke out some of the unused GPIOs so there’s a chance some clever user might find an application for all that untapped power.


    Battery
    The battery pack for Novena is and will continue to be a wildcard in the stack. It’s our first time building a system with such a high-capacity battery, and working through all the shipping regulations to get these delivered to your front door will be a challenge.

    Some countries are particularly difficult in terms of their regulations around the importation of lithium batteries. In the worst case, we’ll send your laptop with no battery inside, and we will ship separately, at our cost, an off-the-shelf battery pack from a vendor that specializes in RC battery packs (e.g. Hobby King). You will have the same battery we featured in the crowd funding campaign, but you’ll need to plug it in yourself. We consider this to be a safe fall-back solution, since Hobby King ships thousands of battery packs a day all around the world.

    However, this did not stop us from developing a custom battery pack. As it’s very difficult to maintain a standing stock of battery packs (they need to be periodically conditioned), we’re including this custom battery pack only to backers of the campaign, providing their country of residence allows its import (and we won’t know for sure until we try). We did get UN38.3 certification for the custom battery pack, which in theory allows it to be shipped by air freight, but regulations around this are in flux. It seems countries and carriers keep on inventing new rules, particularly with all the paranoia about the potential use of lithium batteries as incendiary devices, and we don’t have the resources to keep up with the zeitgeist.

    For those who live in countries that allow the importation of our custom pack, the new pack features a 5000mAh rated capacity (about 2x the capacity over the pack we featured in the crowd campaign, which had 3000mAh printed on the outside but actually delivered about 2500mAh in practice). In real-life testing, the custom pack is getting about 6-7 hours of runtime with minimal power management enabled. Also, since I got to specify the battery, I know this one has the correct protection circuitry built into it, and I know the provenance of its cells and so I have a little more confidence in its long-term performance and stability.

    Of course, it’s a whole different matter convincing the lawmakers, customs authorities, and regulatory authorities of those facts…but fear not, even if they won’t accept this custom limited-edition battery, you will still get the original off-the-shelf pack promised in the campaign.

    Hard Drive
    In the campaign, we referenced providing 240GiB Intel 530 (or equivalent) and 480GiB Intel 720 drives for the laptop and heirloom models, respectively. We left the spec slightly ambiguous because the SSD market moves quickly, and probably the best drive last February when we drew up the spec will be different from the best drive we could get in October, when we actually do the purchasing.

    After doing some research, it’s our belief that the best equivalent drives today are the 240GiB Samsung 840 EVO (for the laptop model) and the 512GiB Samsung 850 Pro (for the Heirloom). We’ve been personally using the 840 EVO in our units for several months now, and they have performed admirably. An important metric for us is how well the drives hold up under unexpected power outages — this happens fairly often, for example, when you’re doing development work on the power management subsystem. Some hard drives, such as the SanDisk Extreme II, fail quite reliably (how’s that for an oxymoron) after a few unexpected power-down cycles. We’ve also had bad luck with OCZ and Crucial drives in the past.

    Intel drives have generally been pretty good, except that Intel stopped doing their own controllers for the 520 and 530 series and instead started using SandForce controllers, which in my opinion removes any potential advantage they could have being both the maker of the memory chips and the maker of the controller. The details of how flash memory performs, degrades, and yields are extremely process-specific, and at least in my fantasy world a company that produces flash + controller combinations should have an advantage over companies that have to mix-and-match multiple flash types with a semi-generic controller. Furthermore, while the Intel 720 does use their home-grown controller solution, it’s a power hog (over 5W active power) and requires a 12V rail, and is thus not suitable for use in laptop environments.

    The 840 EVO series comes with a reasonable 3-year warranty and at it’s held up well against one site’s write endurance test. After using mine for several months, I’ve had no complaints about it, and I think it’s a solid every-day use drive for firmware development. We also have a web server that hosts most of the media content for this and a couple other blogs, wikis, and bug tracking tools, and it’s a Novena running off an 840 EVO.

    For the premium Heirloom users, we’re very excited to build in the 850 PRO series. This drive comes with a serious warranty that matches the “heirloom” name — 10 years. The reason behind their ability to offer such a high claim of reliability is even more remarkable. The drive uses a technology that Samsung has branded “V-NAND”, which I consider to be the first bona-fide production-grade 3D transistor technology. Intel claims they make 3D transistors, but that’s just marketing hype — yes, the gate region has a raised surface topology, but you still only get a single layer of devices. From a design standpoint you’re still working with a 2D graph of devices. It’s like calling Braille a revolutionary 3D printing technology. The should have stuck with what I consider to be the “original” (and more descriptive/less misleading) name, FinFET, because by calling these 3D transistors I don’t know what they’re going to call actual 3D arrays of transistors, if they ever get around to making them.

    Chipworks did an excellent initial analysis of Samsung’s V-NAND technology and you can see from this SEM image they published that V-NAND isn’t about stacking just a couple transistors, Samsung is shipping a full-on 38-layer sandwich:

    This isn’t some lame Intel-style bra-padding exercise. This is full-on process technology bad-assery at its finest. This is Neo decoding the Matrix. This is Mal shooting first. It’s a stack of almost 40 individual, active transistors in a single spot. It’s a game changer, and it’s not vapor ware. Heirloom backers will get a laptop with over 4 trillion of these transistors packed inside, and it will be awesome.

    Sorry, I get excited about these kinds of things.


    Firmware
    From the software side, we’re working on finalizing the kernel, bootloader, and distro selection, as well as deciding what you’ll see when you first power on Novena.

    Marek Vasut is working on getting Novena supported in mainline U-Boot, which involves a surprising number of patches. Few ARM boards support as much RAM as Novena, so some support patches were needed first. Full support is in progress, including USB and video.

    We intend to ship with a mainline kernel, but interestingly Jon Nettleson has a 3.14 long-term-support kernel that is a hybrid of Freescale’s chip-specific patches combined with many backported upstream patches. Users may be interested in using this kernel over the upstream one, which has better support for thermal events and for power management.

    While we prefer to go with an upstream kernel, and to get our changes pushed into mainline, other users might find this kernel’s interesting blend of community and vendor code to satisfy their needs better.

    The kernel that we’ll use has most of the important parts upstreamed, including the audio chip which should be part of the 3.17 kernel. We’re still carrying a few local patches for various reasons ranging from specialized hacks to experimental features, or features that are not yet ready to push upstream, or rely on other features that are not yet upstream.

    For example, the display system on a laptop is very different from what is usually found on an ARM device, and we have local patches to fix this up. In most ARM devices, the screen is fixed during boot and it isn’t possible to hot-swap displays at runtime. Novena supports two different displays at once, and allows you to plug in an HDMI monitor without needing to reboot.

    Speaking of displays, the community has been hard at work on an accelerated 2D Xorg DDX driver. 2D acceleration is important, because most of the time users are interacting with the desktop, and 2D hardware uses significantly less power than 3D hardware. On a desktop machine, the 3D chip is used to composite the desktop. On Novena, which doesn’t have a fan and a small overall active power footprint, saving power is very important. By taking advantage of the 2D-only hardware, we save power while having a smoother experience. There are a few bugs that remain with the 2D driver, but it should be ready by the time we ship.

    There is a 3D driver that is in progress as well. It’s able to run Quake 3 on the framebuffer, but still has to be integrated into an OpenGL ES driver before it works under X.

    We’ve also been working on getting a root filesystem setup. This includes deciding which packages are installed, and customizing the list of software repositories. We want to add a repository for our kernel and bootloader, as well as for various packages which haven’t made it upstream such as an imx6 version of irqbalance. This will allow us to provide you with updated kernels as we add more support.

    Finally, the question remains of what you’ll see when you first power it up. In Linux, it’s not at all common to have a first-boot setup screen where you create your user, set the time, and configure the network. That’s common in Windows and OS X, which come preinstalled, but under Linux that’s generally taken care of by the installer. As we mull the topic, we’re torn between creating a good desktop-style experience vs. making a practical embedded developer’s experience. A desktop-style experience would ship a blank-slate and prompt the user to create an account via a locally attached keyboard and monitor; however, embedded developers may never plug a monitor into their device, and instead prefer to connect via console or ssh, thereby requiring a default username, password and hostname. Either way, we want to create just a single firmware common across all platforms, and so special-casing releases to a particular target is the least desired solution. If you have an opinion, please share it in our user forum.


    Community
    We’re pleased to see that even before shipping, we have a few alpha developers who continue to be very active. In addition to Jon Nettleton (gfx), Russell King (also gfx), and Marek Vasut (u-boot), we have a couple of other alpha user’s efforts we’d like to highlight in this update.

    MyriadRF continues to move forward with their SDR solution for Novena. About three weeks ago they sent us pre-production boards, and they are looking good. We’ve placed a binding order for their boards, and things look on track to get them into our shop by November, in time for integration with the first desktop units we’ll be shipping. MyriadRF is working on a fun demo for their hardware, but I’ll save that story for them to tell :)

    The CrypTech group has also been developing applications with the help of Novena. The CrypTech project is developing a BSD / CC BY-SA 3.0 licensed reference design and prototype examples of a Hardware Security Module. Their hope is to create a widely reviewed, designed-for-crypto device that anyone can compose for their application and easily build with their own trusted supply chain. They are using Novena to prototype elements of their design.

    The expansion board highlighted above is a prototype noise source based on avalanche noise from the transistor that can be seen on the middle of the board. CrypTech uses that noise to generate entropy in the FPGA. The entropy is then combined with entropy generated by ring oscillators in the FPGA and mixed using e.g. SHA-512 to generate seeds. The seeds are then used to initialize the ChaCha stream cipher, ultimately resulting in a stream of cryptographically sound random values. The result is a high performance, state-of-the art random number generator coprocessor. This of course represents just a first draft; since the implementation is done in an FPGA, the CrypTech team will continue to evolve their methodology and experiment with alternative methods to generate a robust stream of random numbers.

    Thanks to the CrypTech team for sharing a sneak-peek of their baby!

    Looking Forward

    From our current progress, it seems we’re still largely on track to release an initial shipment of bare boards to early backers in late November, and have an initial shipment of desktop units ready to go by late December. We’ll be shipping the units in tranches, so some backers will receive units before others.

    Our shipping algorithm is roughly a combination of how early someone backed the campaign, modified by which region of the world you’re in. As every country has different customs issues, we will probably ship just one or two items to each unique country first to uncover any customs or regulatory problems, before attempting to ship in bulk. This means backers outside the United States (where Crowd Supply’s fulfillment center is located) will be receiving their units a bit later than those within the US.

    And as a final note, if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the hardware business, is that you can’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched. Good progress to date doesn’t mean we’ve got an easy path to finished units. We still have a lot of hills to climb and rivers to cross, but at least for now we seem to be on track.

    Thanks again to all of our Novena backers, we’re looking forward to getting hardware into your hands soon!

    -bunnie & xobs

    Novena in the X-Ray

    Tuesday, May 13th, 2014

    Last week, Nadya Peek from MIT’s CBA gave me the opportunity to play with their CT scanner. I had my Novena laptop with me, so we extracted the motherboard and slapped it into the scanner. Here are some snapshots of the ethernet jacks, which are enclosed metal boxes and thus a target for “intervention” (e.g. NSA ANT FIREWALK featuring their nifty TRINITY MCM).

    Plus, it’s just fun to look at X-rays of your gear.

    The X-ray reveals the expected array of ferrite cores implementing the transformers required by gigabit ethernet.

    An Oscilloscope Module for Novena

    Thursday, May 8th, 2014

    One of Novena’s most distinctive features is its FPGA co-processor. An FPGA, or Field Programmable Gate Array, is a sea of logic gates and memory elements that can be wired up according to hardware descriptions programmed in languages such as Verilog or VHDL. Verilog can be thought of as a very strictly typed C where every line of the code executes simultaneously. Thus, every bit of logic in Novena’s Spartan 6 LX45 FPGA could theoretically perform a computation every clock cycle — all 43,000 logic cells, 54,000 flip flops, and 58 fixed-point multiply accumulate DSP blocks. This potential for massive parallelism underlies one half of the exciting prospects enabled by an FPGA.

    The other exciting half of an FPGA relates to its expansive I/O capabilities. Every signal pin of an FPGA can be configured to comply with a huge range of physical layer specifications, from vanilla CMOS to high-speed differential standards such as TMDS (used in HDMI) and SSTL (used to talk to DDR memories). Each signal pin is also backed by a high speed SERDES (serializer/deserializer) and sophisticated clock management technologies. Need a dozen high-precision PWM channels for robotics? No problem, an FPGA can easily do that. Need an HDMI interface or two? Also no problem. Need a bespoke 1000 MT/s ADC interface? Simple matter of programming – and all with the same set of signal pins.

    Novena also hangs a 2Gbit DDR3 memory chip directly off the FPGA. The FPGA contains a dedicated memory controller that talks DDR3 at a rate of 800MT/s over a 16-bit bus, yielding a theoretical peak memory bandwidth of 12.8 Gbits/s. This fast, deep memory is useful for caching and buffering data locally.

    Thus, the FPGA can be thought of as the ultimate hardware hacking primitive. In order to unlock the full potential of the FPGA, we decided to bring most of the spare I/Os on the chip to a high speed expansion header. The high speed header is a bit less convenient than Arduino shield connectors if all you need to do is flash an LED, but as a trade-off the header is rated for signal speeds of over a gigabit per second per pin.

    However, the GPBB (General Purpose Breakout Board) featured as one of the Novena crowdfunding campaign stretch goals resolves this inconvenience by converting the high speed signal format into a much lower performance but more convenient 0.1” pin header format, suitable for most robotics and home automation projects.

    Enter the Oscilloscope
    A problem that xobs and I frequently encounter is the need for a highly programmable, travel-friendly oscilloscope. There’s a number of USB scope solutions that don’t quite cut it in terms of analog performance and UX, and there are no self-contained solutions we know of today that allow us to craft stimulus-response loops of the type needed for fuzzing, glitching, power analysis, or other similar hardware hacking techniques.

    Fortunately, Novena is an ideal platform for implementing a bespoke oscilloscope solution – which we’ve gone ahead and done. Here’s a video demonstrating the basic functionality of our oscilloscope solution running on Novena (720p version in VP8 or H.264):

    Novena was plugged into the large-screen TV via HDMI to make filming the video a little bit easier.

    In a nutshell, the oscilloscope offers two 8-bit channels at 1GSPS or one 8-bit channel at 2GSPS with an analog bandwidth of up to 900MHz. As a side bonus we also wired in a set of 10 digital channels that can be used as a simple logic analyzer. Here’s some high resolution photos of the oscilloscope expansion board:

    Here’s the schematics.

    This combination of the oscilloscope expansion board plus Novena is a major step toward the realization of our dream of a programmable, travel-friendly oscilloscope. The design is still a couple revisions away from being production ready, but even in its current state it’s a useful hacking tool.

    At this point, I’m going to geek out and talk about the tech behind the implementation of the oscilloscope board.

    Oscilloscope Architecture
    Below is a block diagram of the oscilloscope’s digital architecture.

    The FPGA is configured to talk to an ADC08D1020 dual 1GSPS ADC, designed originally by National Semiconductor but now sold as TI. The interface to the ADC is a pair of 8-bit differential DDR busses, operating at up to 500MHz, which is demultiplexed 1:8 into a 64-bit internal datapath. Upon receipt of a trigger condition, the FPGA stores a real-time sample data from the ADC into local DDR3 memory, and later on the CPU can stream data out of the DDR3 memory via the Linux Generic Netlink API. Because the DDR3 memory’s peak bandwidth is only 1.6GSPS, deep buffer capture of 256 Msamples is only available for net sample rates below 1GSPS; higher sample rates are limited to the internal memory capacity of the FPGA, still a very usable 200 ksamples depth. The design is written in Verilog and consumes about 15% of the FPGA, leaving plenty of space for implementing other goodies like digital filters and other signal processing.

    The ADC is clocked by an Analog Devices AD9520 PLL, which derives its time base from a TCXO. This PLL + TCXO combination gives us better jitter performance than the on-chip PLL of the FPGA, and also gives us more flexibility on picking sampling rates.

    The power system uses a hybrid of boost, buck, and inverting switching regulators to bring voltages to the minimum-dropout required for point-of-use LDOs to provide clean power to sensitive analog subsystems. This hybrid approach makes the power system much more complex, but helps keep the power budget manageable.

    Perhaps the most unique aspect of our oscilloscope design is the partitioning of the analog signal chain. Getting a signal from the point of measurement to the ADC is a major engineering challenge. Remarkably, the same passive probe I held in the 90′s is still a standard workhorse for scopes like my Tektronix TDS5104B almost a quarter century later. This design longevity is extremely rare in the world of electronics. With a bandwidth of several hundred MHz but an impedance measured in mega-ohms and a load capacitance measured in picofarads, it makes one wonder why we even bother with 50-ohm cables when we have stuff like oscilloscope probes. There’s a lot of science behind this, and as a result well-designed passive probes, such as the Tektronix P6139B, cost hundreds of dollars.

    Unfortunately, high quality scope probes are made out of unicorn hair and unobtanium as far as I’m concerned, so when thinking about our design, I had to take a clean-sheet look at the problem. I decided to look at an active probe solution, whilst throwing away any notion of backward compatibility with existing scope probes.

    I started the system design by first considering the wires (you can tell I’m a student of Tom Knight – one of his signature phrases is “it’s the wires, stupid!”). I concluded the cheapest high-bandwidth commodity cable that is also rated for a high insertion count is probably the SATA cable. It consists of two differential pairs and it has to support signal bandwidths measured in GHz, yet it costs just a couple of bucks. On the downside, any practical probing solution needs to present an impedance of almost a million times greater than that required by SATA, to avoid loading down the circuitry under test. This means we have to cram a high performance amplifier into a PCB that fits in the palm of your hand. Thankfully, Moore’s Law took care of that in the intervening decades from when passive oscilloscope probes were first invented out of necessity.

    The LMH6518 is a single-chip solution for oscilloscope front-ends that is almost perfect for this scenario. It’s a 900 MHz, digitally controlled variable gain amplifier (VGA) with the added feature of an auxilliary output that’s well-suited for functioning as a trigger channel; conveniently, a SATA cable has two differential pairs, so we allocate one for measurement and one for trigger. We also strap a conventional 8-pin ribbon cable to the SATA cable for passing power and I2C.

    The same LMH6518 VGA can be combined with a variety of front-end amplifiers to create a range of application-specific probes. We use a 1GHz FET op-amp (the ADA4817) to do the impedance transformation required of a “standard” digital oscilloscope. We use a relatively low impedance but “true differential” amplifier to measure voltages developed across a series sense resistor for power signature analysis. And we have a very high-impedance, high CMRR instrumentation amplifier front end for capturing signals developed across small loops and stubs of wire, useful for detecting parasitic electromagnetic emissions from circuits and cables.

    Above: digital probe

    Above: power signature analysis probe

    Above: sidechannel emissions probe

    However, the design isn’t quite perfect. The LMH6518 burns a lot of power – a little over a watt; and the pre-amp plus power regulators add about another watt overall to the probe’s power footprint. Two watts isn’t that bad on an absolute scale, but two watts in the palm of your hand is searing hot; the amplifier chip gets to almost 80C. So, I designed a set of custom aluminum heatsinks for the probes to help spread and dissipate the heat.

    When I handed the aluminum-cased probes to xobs, I warned him that the heat sinks are either going to solve the heat issue, or it’s going to turn the probes into a ball of flaming hot metal. Unfortunately, the heatsink gets to about 60C in still air, which is an ergonomic challenge – the threshold for pain is typically around 45-50C, so it’s very uncomfortable to hold the aluminum cases directly. It’s alright to hold the probes by the plastic connectors on the back, but this requires special training and users will instinctively want to hold a probe by its body. So, probably I’ll have to do some thermal optimization of the design and add either a heat pipe to a large heatsink off the probe body, or use a small fan to force air over the probes. It turns out just a tiny bit of airflow is all that’s need to keep the probes cool, but with passive convection alone they are simply too hot to handle. This won’t, of course, stop us from using them as-is; we’re okay with having to be a little bit careful to gain access to a very capable device. However, nanny-state laws and potentially litigious customers make it too risky to sell this solution to end consumers right now.

    Firmware Architecture

    xobs defined the API for the oscilloscope. The driver is based upon the Generic Netlink API native to the Linux kernel, and relies upon the libnl-genl libraries for the user-space implementation. Out of the various APIs available in the Linux kernel to couple kernelspace to userspace, Netlink was the best match, as it is stream-oriented and inherently non-blocking. This API has been optimized for high throughput and low latency, since it is also the core of the IP network stacks that on servers push gigabits of bandwidth. It’s also more mature than the nascent Linux IIO subsystem.

    In the case of xobs’ driver, he creates a custom generic netlink protocol which he registers with the name “kosagi-fpga”. Generic netlink sockets support the concept of specific commands, and he currently supports the following:


    /* list of valid commands */
    enum kosagi_fpga_commands {
    KOSAGI_CMD_UNSPEC,
    KOSAGI_CMD_SEND,
    KOSAGI_CMD_READ,
    KOSAGI_CMD_POWER_OFF,
    KOSAGI_CMD_POWER_ON,
    KOSAGI_CMD_FPGA_ASSERT_RESET,
    KOSAGI_CMD_FPGA_DEASSERT_RESET,
    KOSAGI_CMD_TRIGGER_SAMPLE,
    __KOSAGI_CMD_MAX,
    };

    The current implementation provisions two memory-mapped address spaces for the CPU to communicate with the FPGA, split along two different chip select lines. Chip Select 0 (CS0) is used for simple messages and register settings, while Chip Select 1 (CS1) is used for streaming data to and from the FPGA. Therefore, when the CPU wants to set capture buffer sizes, trigger conditions, or initiate a transfer, it communicates using CS0. When it wants to stream data from the FPGA, it will do so via CS1.

    The core of the API is the KOSAGI_CMD_TRIGGER_SAMPLE and KOSAGI_CMD_READ commands. To request a sample from the oscilloscope, the userspace program emits a KOSAGI_CMD_TRIGGER_SAMPLE command to the kosagi-fpga Netlink interface. This will cause the CPU to communicate with the FPGA via the CS0 EIM memory space control registers, setting up the trigger condition and the transfer FIFO from the FPGA.

    The userspace program will then emit a KOSAGI_CMD_READ command to retrieve the data. Upon receiving the read command, the kernel initiates a burst read from CS1 EIM memory space to a kernel buffer using memcpy(), which is forwarded back to the userspace that requested the data using the genlmsg_unicast() Netlink API call. Userspace retrieves the data stream from the kernel by calling the nl_recv() API call.

    This call is currently configured to block until the data is available for the userspace program, but it can also be configured to timeout as well. However, a timeout is generally not necessary as the call will succeed in a fraction of a millisecond due to the high speed and determinism of the transfer interface.

    In addition to handling data transfers, the kernel module implementing this API also handles housekeeping functions, such as configuring the FPGA and controlling power to the analog front end. FPGA configuration is handled automatically upon driver load (via insmod, modprobe, or udev) via the request_firmware() API built into the Linux kernel. The FPGA bitstream is located in the kernel firmware directory, usually /lib/firmware/novena_fpga.bit.

    Power management functions have their own dedicated Netlink commands. Calling these commands causes the respective GPIO for the expansion connector power switch to be toggled. When the expanion connector is power-cycled, the module also resets the FPGA and reloads its firmware, allowing for a complete reset of the expansion subsystem without having to power cycle the CPU.

    Above: a snippet of a trace captured by the scope when probing a full-speed USB data line.

    xobs also wrote a wonderful demo program in Qt for the oscilloscope, and through this we were able to do some preliminary performance characterization. The rise-time performance of the probe is everything I had hoped for, and the very long capture buffer provided by the FPGA’s DDR3 memory enables a new dimension of deep signal analysis. This, backed with Novena’s horsepower, tight integration with Linux and a hackable architecture makes for a compelling – and portable – signal analysis solution for field work.

    If the prospect of a a hackable oscilloscope excites you as much as it does us, please consider backing our crowdfunding campaign for Novena and spreading the word to your friends; there’s only a few days left. Developing complex hardware and software systems isn’t cheap, and your support will enable us to focus on bringing more products like this to market.

    Novena’s Hackable Bezel

    Saturday, May 3rd, 2014

    When designing Novena, I had to balance budget against hackability. Plastic parts are cheap to produce, but the tools to mold them are very expensive and difficult to modify. Injection mold tooling cost for a conventional clamshell (two-body) laptop runs upwards of $250,000. In contrast, Novena’s single body design has a much lower tooling cost, making it feasible to amortize tooling costs over a smaller volume.

    The decision to use flat sheet aluminum for the LCD bezel was also driven in part to reduce tooling costs. Production processing for aluminum can be done using CNC, virtually eliminating up-front tooling costs. Furthermore, aluminum has great hack value, as it can be cut, drilled, tapped, and bent with entry-level tools. This workability means end users can easily add connectors, buttons, sensors, and indicators to the LCD bezel. Users can even design in a custom LCD panel, since there’s almost no setup cost for machining aluminum.

    One of my first mods to the bezel is a set of 3D-printed retainers, custom designed to work with my preferred keyboard. The retainers screw into a set of tapped M2.5 mounting holes around the periphery of the LCD.

    The idea is that the retainers hold my keyboard against the LCD bezel when transporting the laptop, protecting the LCD from impact damage while making it a little more convenient for travel.

    Such an easily customizable bezel means a limitless combination of keyboards and LCDs can be supported without requiring expensive modifications to injection molding tools.

    The flat design also means it’s easy to laser-cut a bezel using other materials. Here’s an example made out of clear acrylic. The acrylic version looks quite pretty, although as a material acrylic is much softer and less durable than aluminum.

    I also added a notch on the bottom part of the bezel to accommodate breakout boards plugged into the FPGA expansion connector.

    The low up-front cost to modify and customize the bezel enables experimentation and serendipitous hacks. I’m looking forward to seeing what other Novena users do with their bezels!

    Design Novena’s Logo and Win a Desktop!

    Thursday, April 24th, 2014

    Novena needs a logo. And we need you to help! Today we’re announcing a competition to design a logo for Novena, and the winner will get a desktop version of Novena and a T-shirt emblazoned with their logo.

    The competition starts today. Submissions should be sent to novena@crowdsupply.com by the end of May 11th. On May 12th, all submissions will be posted in an update, and on May 15th we’ll pick a winner.

    We’re also adding a $25 tier for backers who would like to receive a T-shirt with our new logo on it. The base color of the T-shirt will be royal blue, like the blue anodization of Novena’s bezel, and the base fit will be the American Apparel Jersey T-shirt (S,M,L,XL,2XL,3XL) or the Bella Girly Jersey V-Neck T-shirt (S,M,L,XL,2XL — ladies, Bella sizes run small, so round up for a comfortable fit). We aim to ship the T-shirts within 2 months of campaign conclusion.

    For the logo, here are the guidelines for design:

  • Single-color design strongly preferred. However, a multi-color master design can work if a single-color variant also looks good.
  • No halftones or grayscale: logo must be screen printable, laser etchable, and chemically etchable.
  • Only submissions in vector format will be considered, but do include a PNG preview.
  • Target size is approximately 30mm-50mm x 10-15mm tall (printable on the lower left bezel or as an etched metal plaque screwed in place).
  • Target color is Pantone 420U (gray), but other color suggestions and schemes are welcome.
  • Ideally looks good backlit, so we can also make stickers that go on the exposed LCD backlight for a nice effect.
  • The design could say “Novena” or “novena”, but we’re open minded to other names or an icon with no text. Novena was an arbitrary code name we picked based on our naming scheme of Singapore MRT stations.
  • Design should not infringe on any other trademarks.
  • By submitting an entry, the submitter agrees to having their submission publicly posted for review and, if the submitter’s entry is selected as the winner, to automatically give Kosagi globally unlimited, royalty-free and exclusive use of the logo design, with a desktop version of Novena as the sole compensation for the single winning submission. Submitters retain the rights to non-winning submissions.

    If you’ve already backed Novena at the desktop tier or above and you are the chosen winner, we will refund you the campaign value ($1,195) of the desktop pledge level.

    Thanks in advance to everyone who will participate in the Novena logo design competition!