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Linux-based controller mixes Atom SoC with Kintex-7 FPGA

Aug 13, 2014 — by Eric Brown 2,222 views

[Updated Aug 18] — NI’s new 4-slot CompactRIO control system combines a dual-core Atom E3825 with a Kintex-7 FPGA, and features industrial temperatures and NI Real-Time Linux.

The National Instruments (NI) “CompactRIO 4-slot Performance Controller” is the high end “performance” big brother to NI’s “value” CompactRIO cRIO-9068 model, introduced a year ago. Whereas the cRIO-9068 runs NI Linux Real-Time OS on a Xilinx ARM+FPGA hybrid Zynq-7020 system-on-chip, the new CompactRIO splits processing duty between an Intel Atom processor and a higher-end Xilinx Kintex-7 325T FPGA. The CompactRIO uses a dual-core, 1.33GHz Atom E3825 SoC from the latest, 22nm Bay-Trail-I generation, featuring a relatively low, 6 Watt TDP.

CompactRIO 4-slot Performance Controller

Like the cRIO-9068, the new performance model can run NI’s LabVIEW 2014 controller software and can integrate more than 100 of NI’s C Series I/O modules available for the CompactRIO, which include everything from voltage I/O to sensor devices to wireless gateways. The new “software-designed” controller supports -40 to 70°C temperatures, and is intended for advanced control and applications in harsh, industrial environments, says NI. The CompactRIO 4-slot performance model provides “high-performance processing, custom timing and triggering, and data transfer from modular C Series I/O,” says the company.

The Atom E3825 was also used on the recently announced NI Linux-ready CompactDAQ cDAQ-9134 data acquisition and control (DAQ) computer. Both systems use the same Atom-based system board, but populated with different RAM and storage options depending on the particularCompactRIO or CompactDAQ model, according to Asa Kirby, NI’s CompactRIO Product Marketing Manager.


Atom E3825 system board (left) with CompactRIO 4-slot Performance Controller (upper right) with CompactDAQ cDAQ-9134 (lower right)
(click images to enlarge)

With the help of LabVIEW 2014 and NI Linux, the CompactRIO 4-slot Performance Controller enables integration with a local HMI device. This lets the control system offload HMI tasks, thereby “cutting component costs as well as development and integration time,” says NI.

“We’re working on offering new industrial touch screen monitors that will work well with the new CompactRIO and the embedded UI feature, but they are not available yet,” NI’s Kirby told LinuxGizmos in an email. “In the meantime, we’ve tried a range of monitors as well as touch screen monitors from other vendors and have seen good compatibility with the Linux drivers we’re using for graphics and USB-based touch interfaces.”

The system also lets users integrate machine vision cameras via the USB 2.0 or gigabit Ethernet ports, letting you integrate vision acquisition directly into an application. In addition, the controller’s new Vision IP can turn the FPGA into a high-performance vision co-processor, says the company.

Prior to the cRIO-9068, CompactRIO models ran the VxWorks real-time operating system (RTOS) on other Xilinx FPGAs, but the new Linux-ready models appear to be the main thrust for the platform going forward. The choice of the Atom, rather than ARM Cortex-A9, as the companion SoC for the performance model may allow the controller to run Windows Embedded Standard 7 OS in the future, in addition to its current Linux support. However, unlike the CompactDAQ, which currently offers a choice of NI Linux Real-time or WES7, Linux is currently the only option for the CompactRIO.

“LabVIEW 2014 with NI Linux Real-Time support lets engineers and scientists use a single, familiar development environment to continue developing their system while taking immediate advantage of increased CompactRIO hardware performance,” says NI in its CompactRIO announcement.

NI Linux Real-Time is a dual-mode OS, enabling recovery from application failure without significant disruption, says NI. The robust distribution is designed to run multiple programs in parallel. (See our earlier coverage for more on NI Linux Real-Time OS.)

NI CompactRIO embedded hardware architecture (left) and C/C++ embedded software design architecture
(click images to enlarge)

The Kintex-7 325T FPGA has almost three times as many complex logic blocks and over 13x more DSP slices than the Xilinx-7020, says NI. The Kintex-7 has been previously used in Linux devices such as Innovative Integration’s Mini-K7 instrumentation computer, which instead combined the Kintex with an AMD G-Series processor.

The Kintex-7 FPGA and Atom E3825 are linked via a PCI Express bus, “which dramatically improves throughput and gives access to 16 DMA channels,” says NI. Intel collaborated with NI on the design, says the company.

While the announcement describes a “325T” Xilinx Kintex-7 FPGA, referring to block RAM/FIFO support, the only detailed product pages for the Atom/Kintex CompactRIO 4-Slot models are for a cRIO-9033 with a 160T Kintex-7, 2GB of RAM, and 8GB storage, as well as a similar cRIO-9031 with a 70T Kintex-7 and half the RAM (1GB) and flash storage (4GB). There’s also a cRIO-9030, which appears to be identical to the cRIO-9031, except that unlike that model, as well as the cRIO-9033, it lacks -40 to 70°C industrial temperature support.

A 325T-based version of the CompactRIO is in development, according to Kirby, but details and availability have not been released publicly. We would expect the 325T model to be similar to the cRIO-9033, giving it 2GB of RAM and 8GB of storage.

The CompactRIO performance controller is said to be the first CompactRIO system to include native removable SD card storage, letting you select between removable or non-removable storage locations. The SD card can even be replaced without affecting the running application, enabling easier field upgrades. The system supports SDHC storage cards with capacities up to 32GB.

CompactRIO 4-slot Performance Controller detail view
(click image to enlarge)

The new CompactRIO is further equipped with dual gigabit Ethernet ports, dual USB 2.0 host ports, a USB device port, and two serial ports. There’s also a Mini-DisplayPort connection, and four slots to load C Series I/O modules. The performance model is larger than the cRIO-9068 value model, measuring 22 x 10.9 x 8.7cm.

“The LabVIEW RIO architecture breaks the barriers of traditional embedded system design and provides the best off-the-shelf platform to solve any demanding control and monitoring task,” stated Jamie Smith, director of embedded systems at NI.

“The Intel and NI collaboration allows industrial customers to benefit from the latest processing technologies while meeting their rugged performance requirements,” stated Shahram Mehraban, global head of energy and industrial segments at the Intel Internet of Things Group.

Further information

The CompactRIO 4-slot Performance Controller appears to be available now, and an 8-slot model will be released later this year. More information may be found at NI’s CompactRIO product page, as well as this 4-Slot Performance product page, and this cRIO-9033 product page.

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