Two trends dominate the world of printed-circuit-board (PCB) designers these days. One is the mushrooming complexity of modern board designs. Many system designs are constrained by size, which raises the layer count in PCBs. These boards may have multiple processors, FPGAs, and other high-pin-count ICs with high clock rates and steep signal rise/fall times, making layout and routing a severe challenge.
Compounding the complexity issues is the growing trend toward physical dispersion of the design team. Rare is the company that has all of its design personnel in the same physical location. More often, designers are dispersed around a campus, a country, or the world. Further, it would be desirable in many cases to have these designers collaborate on design projects, but doing so is problematic.
Stepping into this breach is Mentor Graphics' Xtreme PCB, an adjunct to its popular Expedition and Board Station PCB design suites. Xtreme PCB is an under-the-hood management tool that implements a new system architecture for PCB designers. It enables up to 15 layout designers to work on the same design at once, while affecting a common design database simultaneously. Each designer can see, in real time, what the others are doing. This represents a new paradigm in PCB design work that will impact productivity as well as organizational resource allocation. Early adopters have found as much as a 50% productivity gain (see "Concurrent PCB Designers Reap Benefits," p. 48).
Generally, PCB design teams use a "split-and-join" approach to design partitioning. With this technique, designers work on the project concurrently but in their own predefined partitions. They typically lack the ability to see each other's edits in real time. In fact, simple changes in a given partition can trigger the need to reassemble the design and then repartition it before the team can continue. Partitioning the design also comes with other inherent limitations, such as dealing with boundaries, moving parts from one partition to another, or performing drafting functions on the entire design.
Xtreme PCB gets around these limitations by enabling all designers to work on the entire board at any one time, eradicating partitioning altogether. Synchronization is done automatically, and all designers can see all other edits in real time. Moreover, there's no requirement at the outset of a design project to determine whether that project will be done in an Xtreme PCB environment or not. A project can start that way and be reverted to single-designer mode later or vice versa.
Xtreme PCB operates on a central server (or any workstation) on the design team's local-area network (LAN) or wide-area network (WAN). It runs entirely in the background of the designer's Mentor layout tool and is completely invisible, which means it doesn't impact the user interface that Mentor customers are accustomed to seeing in Expedition or Board Station. Any member of the team can start a design session, and then other clients, or designers, can join the Xtreme PCB session at any time.
Designs are first loaded on the server. When designers join the session, the current state of the design is automatically downloaded onto their workstations. As designers join, a "handle" is defined, which may be displayed along with their cursor for identification purposes.
Though there's no need for formal partitioning of an Xtreme PCB-managed design, a given designer may have the need or desire to earmark a specific area of the board for his or her own purposes. Xtreme PCB does offer the ability to temporarily lock down objects by creating protected areas. Meanwhile, designers can use standard networking methods to verbally interact using headsets or display "force fields" around cursors to indicate where each is working. When a significant change is made to the design that affects other members, a notification is sent allowing them to accept or reject the change.
Xtreme PCB is compatible with a variety of network environments, including symmetrical multiple processors, LANs, and WANs. It's available now as an optional add-on to Board Station RE (AutoActive) and Expedition PCB Pinnacle. Pricing starts at $50,000 for the Xtreme Session server software. Pricing for each Xtreme PCB seat starts at $15,000 per license.