Using a portable PC as test equipment

Portable PC test equipment

The traditional test equipment manufacturers don’t like to admit it – but a properly configured portable computer can be a first rate test and measurement platform.  The flexibility of plug in cards, and the software suites that can combine readings into true analysis can make a portable PC the ideal solution for diagnostics, pass/fail, long term logging and system configuration and calibration devices.

Rugged Military Computer with removable Drives

Systems that require stimulation or a serial data feed to emulate real world scenarios are particularly suited to a PC-based test equipment solution.

So what makes a good portable computer platform?  Primarily it comes down to expansion slots.  While there is plenty of bandwidth available through USB-C and Thunderbolt, there are not many companies manufacturing test equipment cards using those interfaces.  So that means most modern Laptops are unsuitable in two ways: Expansion and Ruggedness.

Test & Measurement

The traditional test & measurement companies (Aeroflex, Anritsu, Bird, FlukeKeysight, Rohde and Schwarz, Tektronix, Yokogawa), make excellent oscilloscopes, function generators and DVM’s etc.  But connecting them all together to make a test suite has always been problematic.  Often, in order to actually get the system to work, it is best to stick to one manufacturer.  Even then you end up with an expensive, fairly fragile, rack full of test equipment connected together using often out of date busses.  Of course there are areas that are not really suitable for PC based systems – Vector Signal Analyzers, and Network Analyzers (not to be confused with PC network sniffers) and frequency agile test sets are unsuited to the somewhat noisy (electronically) interior of a portable computer.  There is a reason that these companies are at the bleeding edge of technology and can sell products for $150K+ that will be useless in a three or four years.

Expansion slots used to create test equipment
Expansion slots

Side view of FlexPAC-III-24

But say your needs aren’t “what is the exact current coming out of this port?” but more “Is the current coming out of this port in range?”  What happens when we stress the system?  A combination of signal generation and data acquisition and some simple coding and you have a custom test system.

These systems are best housed in a rugged portable computer with expansion slots.  Typical modern configurations include a motherboard wit PCIe expansion slots.  An i7 or Intel Xeon processor and SSD storage are now standard.  If data analysis and presentation are part of the task, multi-screen portables are now available – see FlexPAC-III and MilPAC-III

Portable computer MilPAC C4ISR

The most commonly used graphical programming language is National Instruments Labview.  An open source alternative is MyOpenLab. Alternatively you can write in Python and use DAQ libraries from the card manufacturers.

Examples of interface cards:

1553

 PCIE-1553 Card

Abaco systems 1553

Abaco Systems RPCIE-1553 is the latest generation of performance and flexibility for MIL-STD-1553 A/B Notice II on a native PCI Express module. Available in -40°C to +70°C temperature with one, two or four dual-redundant channels, the RPCIE-1553 includes advanced API (Application Programming Interface) software that reduces application development time.

DDC AceExtreme

PCIe 1553 DDC Card

The combination of 1553 with digital and avionics Discrete I/Os offers flexibility that makes the PCI Express Card ideal for most test applications. DDC’s common test/embedded software API increases productivity, allowing your test and embedded designs to be generated from a common source.

  • Save Time and Reduce Costs:
    • Common Software API for Test/Embedded Boards and Components
    • Program in Minutes with Automated Source Code Generation
    • Test and Simulation Toolkit for Advanced Testing
    • On-Board Programmable Coupling/Termination Reduces Cable Setup Time
  • Enhanced Performance
    • On-Board DMA Engine for Low CPU Utilization
    • Bridgeless PCI-E Design Reduces Access Time
    • MSI Interrupts Reduce Interrupt Latency
    • (x1) PCIe = Flexibility

1394 PCIe S800 Optical

PCIe 1394 optical interface from DAP

The PCIe042b is an innovative interface card that addresses the need for 800Mbps data transfer rates over multiple bus interfaces. It allows for one standard 1394 copper as well as two glass optical fiber (GOF) connections. These Fiber connections support both the S800 transmission rates as well as long-haul distances (up to 100m) over LC Duplex 50/125um multi-modes optical cables.

It uses the ever so popular PCIe interface standard and is fully OHCI compliant. The products accommodate off-the-shelf IEEE-1394 OHCI drivers from WindowsTM & Linux-based operating systems. No driver modification/installation is required.

CANbus

Vehicle Multiprotocol Interface Device

CANBus PCIe interface

The Vehicle Multiprotocol Interface Device excels in applications requiring real-time, high-speed manipulation of hundreds of CAN frames and signals, such as hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) simulation, rapid control prototyping, bus monitoring, automation control, and more. The NI-XNET device-driven DMA engine enables the onboard processor to move CAN frames and signals between the interface and the user program without CPU interrupts, minimizing message latency and freeing host processor time for processing complex models and applications.

100TB+ in a portable server!

120TB of SSDsPortable server for network capture

16 removable drive portable server

The most powerful portable server on the planet just got some more storage!  The NetPAC-RHD-16 is now available with 16 x 7.6TB Micron 5200 SSD‘s.

Thanks to advances in Micron’s NAND technology, SSD’s are getting bigger and faster.

Portable server for professional data capture

Often used to copy a network in real time, the NetPAC-RHD16 with 16 removable drives and the flexibility to connect to any network architecture.  A 17″ display lets you set up and monitor network activity in real time. The robust aluminum enclosure ensures reliable operation when you arrive on site.  Lockable catches allow you to prevent unauthorized access and stop interference with the server’s operation.  A dual Xeon server architecture means there is plenty of processing power.  Up to 56 cores and 1TB of RAM.

removable caddyHigh speed removable caddies

Powerful performance mobility

We know that there is often limited space in the network center.  The NetPAC-RHD-16 is narrow enough to fit between the rails of a 19″ rack – so if the only space left in the server-room is on top of a server or a router – no problem!

Cooling and expansionRobust construction protects display

If 120TB is more than you need, please contact ACME Portable and one of our experienced engineers can help specify a system for your application.

Largest rack-mount display in 1U

1U 23" rack-mount display

Workstation rack mount display – 1U, 23″

Our customer needed the biggest display possible in a 1U rack slot.  They also needed a built in web-cam, microphone, security card reader, and physical mouse pad.  Building on decades of experience, ACME were able to produce this system quickly, and on budget!  The locking pins are similar to those used in the RMDDU-23 – which has seen numerous deployments in mobile racks.  (Click the link if two 23″ displays is more interesting)

The RMSDU-1U-23 is a 1U rack mount display with:

  • 1x 23” LCD 1920×1080 resolution
  • Built in 1080p webcam up/down adjustable
  • 1x Microphone 3.5mm pass through to I/O panel
  • 1x Audio 3.5mm pass through to I/O Panel
  • 1x Keyboard with:
    • 2x built in CAC/access card readers
    • 1x Ambidextrous Mouse shelf
  • 1x I/O Panel with:
  • 1x Keyboard dedicated USB 2.0 port
  • 1x Mouse dedicated USB 2.0 port
  • 1x Webcam dedicated USB 2.0 port
  • 1x Microphone 3.5mm pass through to monitor
  • 1x Audio 3.5mm pass through to monitor

 

Locking pins for transport

Robust construction and steel locking pins for secure transport

Opening mechanism 1U 23" monitor23" rack mount monitor - 1U

Rack mount display screen lifts, rotates and tilts for ergonomic operation.

The built in web cam can tilt vertically to allow for different operator preferences.

1U rack monitor rear viewslim rack monitor rear panel

Custom configurations possible – please contact ACME Portable

Why a Portable Computer?

First of all, What is a Portable Computer?

It’s definitely not a laptop. Yet, It’s not a desktop either. A portable computer is a hybrid of both and more! Portable Computers, or “lunchbox” computers as some may call them, are a niche product for users and industries which require high-performance, high-storage, expansion slots, and arguably most importantly, portability. Many industries have needs for portable computers or workstations. Industrial test and measurement, broadcast, cyber security, defense, and aerospace are just a few of the many environments who require portable computers.

Now you’re probably wondering, Why a Portable Computer?

Here are some of the main reasons why anyone would choose a portable, over say a notebook or desktop.

Processing Power!

First and foremost, the process power of a portable goes above and beyond. When considering applications requiring high performance and computing, there is just so much more power available in a portable computer. If you consider the variety of configuration options, the possibilities can be endless! Using the latest Dual Xeon processors, enormous RAM capacity (up to 1TB or more) and massive SSD drive storage space, a portable computer can be one heck of a powerhouse.

Rugged Military Computer with removable Drives

Expansion Slots!

Laptops contain a reasonable amount of power for the average consumer. For others, this is simply not enough sometimes. With a portable computer, you have the ability to configure the number of PCIe expansion slots (which we’ve learned is very important per the last blog post), and is built to contain much more processing power. Available in multiple form-factors, portable computers can be massively expandable systems with excess slots, or compact systems that support just enough expansion.

FlexPac Expansion Slots

Rugged Chassis!

Portable Computers can be available in a varying degrees of ruggedness. In contrast to lightweight notebooks, Portables are a lot more rugged and durable. Portables use an aluminum chassis and are ideal for industrial use. Do you need to meet mil-spec environmental standards? The most rugged portables have rubber bumpers, mil-spec connectors, desert sand filters, and high powered fans for extreme temperatures. 

Portable computer MilPAC C4ISR

All-in-One Setup!

Portable computers are just like their name implies. Portable! They can be set up and ready to go in minutes, available with AC & DC power supplies. Built in displays can vary from 15” up to 24”, and can come in single, doubles, and triples. These portables may also have attached full size keyboard and integrated touchpad, or nothing at all.

Portable Computer

For a selection of portable computers that are designed to meet your exact standards– please visit Acmeportable.com.

 

Quick Guide: PCIe Lanes Explained

What is PCI Express?

PCI Express, Peripheral Component Interconnect Express or PCIe for short, can be a somewhat confusing computer component! When a computer starts up, PCI Express is what determines which devices are plugged into the motherboard. It identifies the links between each device, creating a map directing traffic and negotiating the width of each link. This identification of devices and connections uses the same protocol as PCI, so no changes are required to existing software or operating systems.

The way a PCIe connection is structured is it consists of one or more (up to sixteen, at the moment) data-transmission lanes, connected serially. Each lane consists of two pairs of wires, one for receiving and one for transmitting. There are one, four, eight, or sixteen lanes in a single PCIe slot – denoted as x1, x4, x8, or x16. This contrasts to PCI connections which are parallel (32-bit or 64-bit bidirectional parallel bus).

PCIe Lanes

PCIe Lanes on a Motherboard

How do PCIe Lanes work?

PCIe is a layered protocol – the layers being a transaction layer, a data link layer, and a physical layer.  The Data-link layer is sub-divided to include a media access control (MAC) layer.  At the electrical level, each lane consists of two unidirectional differential pairs operating at 2.5, 5, 8 or 16 Gbit/s, depending on the negotiated capabilities. While on the other hand, transmit and receive are separate differential pairs, adding up to a total of four data wires per lane.

Each lane is an independent connection between the PCI controller of the processor chip-set (Southbridge) or the processor itself (usually the graphics card slot) and the expansion card. Bandwidth scales linearly, so a four-lane connection will have twice the bandwidth of a two-lane connection. Depending on the expansion card’s bandwidth requirements, the slot may need to be sized appropriately.

A physical PCIe x16 slot can accommodate a x1, x4, x8, or x16 card, and can run a x16 card at x16, x8, x4, or x1. A PCIe x8 slot can accommodate a x1 or x4 or x8 card but cannot fit a x16 card. Just to confuse the matter further, there are different versions of PCIe interface.  It’s also possible that a motherboard may have multiple slot sizes and also different PCIe versions: 1.0a, 1.1, 2.0, 2.1, 3.0, 3.1, 4.0 and coming soon 5.0.  (Link to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PCI_Express#PCI_Express_5.0)

BUS & Bandwith

BUS Bandwidth
PCI 1056 MBps
AGP 8x 2.1 GBps
PCIe 1.0 / x4 2 GBps
PCIe 1.0 / x8 4 GBps
PCIe 1.0 / x16 8 GBps
PCIe 2.0 / x4 4 GBps
PCIe 2.0 / x8 8 GBps
PCIe 2.0 / x16 16 GBps
PCIe 3.0 / x1 1.97 GBps
PCIe 3.0 / x4 7.88 GBps
PCIe 3.0 / x8 15.8 GBps
PCIe 3.0 / x16 31.5 GBps
PCIe 4.0 / x1 3.94 GBps
PCIe 4.0 / x4 15.75 GBps
PCIe 4.0 / x8 31.5 GBps
PCIe 4.0 / x16 63 GBps
Firewire 400 MBps
USB 1.0 12 MBps
USB 2.0 480 MBps
USB 3.0 4.8 GBps
USB 3.1 10 GBps​
Gigabit Ethernet 1 GBps
IDE (ATA 100) 800 MBps
IDE (ATA 133) 1064 MBps
SATA 1.5 GBps
SATA III 3 GBps
SATA 6 6 GBps

Why do PCIe Lanes matter?

Functions your CPU’s PCIe Lanes Control:

  • Onboard Video
  • PCIe 3.0 x16 Slot (usually for video card)
  • 2/U.2 (on some Enthusiast Boards)
  • LAN (on some Enthusiast Boards)

Other functions use your CHIPSET’s PCIe bus lanes. Functions CHIPSET’s PCIe Lanes control may control:

  • SATA hard drives
  • Onboard Sound
  • Onboard RAID
  • Onboard Network Controller/LAN
  • All PCIe slots except the first one
  • Thunderbolt
  • 2/U.2

Quoted amounts of PCIe bandwidth required by individual components:

  • 8-16 Lanes – x16 PCIe Video Cards (Each)
  • 8-16 Lanes – Other Specialized PCIe Cards
  • 4 Lanes – M.2 Drive
  • 4 Lanes – Thunderbolt (uses 4 lanes PCIe 3.0)
  • 4 Lanes – Hardware Based RAID Controllers
  • 2 Lanes (Each) – SSD Drives
  • 2 Lanes – USB 3.1 (Gen. 2)
  • 1 Lane – USB 3.0 (USB 3.1 Gen. 1)
  • 1 Lane – Sound
  • 1 Lane – Network Controllers

Which chips have the most PCIe lanes?

Different chips support different numbers of PCIe lanes. For example: Intel Core i5 or i7-8700K or i9-8950HK have up to 1×16, 2×8, 1×8+2×4 with a maximum of 16 PCIe lanes.  In addition, the 6850K and up i7’s have 40 lanes. The Intel Xeon E5-4669 v4 has a maximum of 40 PCIe lanes at PCIe 3.0, whereas the E7-8894 v4 has ‘only’ 32 lanes (per processor). AMD has upped the ante with their EPYC CPU’s – they have 128 PCIe lanes 3.0.

In the tech industry today, what makes this really complicated is that motherboard manufacturers have to make their motherboards support a range of processors which may have different numbers of PCIe lanes supported.  So a motherboard using a i7-6850K chip may have the capability to address multiple slots at x16, whereas with a ‘lesser’ chip ie. i7-8700K may be fewer lanes available, with only one slot being x16.  Just to complicate things further, NVME and other types of expansions require PCIe lanes. With NVME being a must-have feature for a modern motherboard, there are now even fewer lanes available to the expansion slots.

While there are some non-PCIe interface options being explored by the technology industry, they would also require major hardware changes. All in all, PCIe looks to remain crucial for a while longer.