August 30, 2013
THE FLEX INSIDER
A Word from our CEO –QST QRQ QSK Operators: Game Changer ahead de K5SDR Seeking testers with the following qualifications:
- Minimum proficient code speed of 60 wpm. Desired 100 wpm.
- Able to operate with separate receive antenna.
- Ability to operate with both paddles and external keyboard keyer
- Own either FLEX-6500 or FLEX-6700
- Current Preview customer or willingness to opt-in for QRQ QSK testing
If you are interested, please email your interest and qualifications to firstname.lastname@example.org.
QRO cudos to Marco and Steve for their FPGA magic.
Now on to the things you need to know this week:
- We are still on track for a September 30 release of SmartSDR v1.0.
- We are currently building to stock in preparation for v1.0 shipments.
- Limited Edition customers can still opt in for the Preview release at any time prior to v1.0.
- We will begin calling the remaining Limited Edition customers around September 23rd so that we can begin shipments the day v1.0 is ready.
Thanks for reading.
FLEX-6000 Engineering Updateby Steve Hicks, N5AC – VP, EngineeringWhen we created the FLEX-5000 more than 8 years ago, we chose the FireWire interface to send data between the radio and the computer. We looked at other interfaces, but at the time only FireWire had the capability to carry the quantity of data from the radio to the computer that we needed. How much data? In the FLEX-5000, we send eight channels each 192ksps I/Q data which amounts to just under 100Mbps of data. There simply were no other interfaces capable of this sustained rate. In the computer industry, we call this data channel a “fat pipe” because we liken it to the huge five meter concrete water supply lines running beneath our streets.From the beginning, FlexRadio has encouraged our customers and the amateur radio population to understand the benefits of this architecture. The two most significant benefits are first: that as computer power has grown, our customers can upgrade and we can create applications that use more of that power, bringing more benefits. And second, since the public has driven down the cost of computers, the radio itself can be lower cost and still take advantage of a commodity computer. Those of you that have purchased any one of our FLEX line (FLEX-5000, FLEX-3000 and FLEX-1500) understand this benefit as you have received a “top ten” radio for a fraction of the price of competitive radios.Five years ago, FlexRadio built our first Ethernet radio. This radio, the CDRX-3200, has what amounts to 32 FLEX-5000s as blades in a rack mount chassis, all of which send their data out a single Ethernet port. Each receiver sends out 200ksps of I/Q data so just a little more bandwidth than the FLEX-5000. Each receiver uses 13.5Mbps of Ethernet bandwidth so all 32 together spit out an amazing 432 Mbps of data over a Gigabit Ethernet port. Now that’s a fat pipe! Again, that radio was built five years ago.Last year, our government customers asked us to build a radio that has 24 separate wide bandwidth receivers in a 1U rackmount chassis. It was a tall order, but we did it. This radio is also an Ethernet radio, but is has four Ten Gigabit Ethernet ports and the radio will saturate these ports with ease — that’s 40Gbps. It takes a rack full of computers to digest all of the data that comes out of a single one of these radios. You might not believe some of the memory and disk specifications on these computers either. FlexRadio has built and knows fat pipe radios well. And we know that there’s something hard about this architecture. The fat pipe architecture has two key disadvantages:
- The radio is actually a system composed of two parts: the radio and the computer. The computer has significant requirements for processing and network placed on it.
- A fat pipe radio is fundamentally limited in networking capabilities
So let’s talk about what these mean. Over the years, we have “heard it all” on PC’s, their operating systems and how they interact with the radio. Since a fat pipe architecture requires the PC to digest I/Q data at a high rate, demodulate it and play the audio, the computer can’t miss a beat. If it does, you will hear pops and crackles in your audio or you will lose signals in your panadapter. Windows PCs are inherently not real-time devices. By the time you load wireless software, virus detectors, email programs and the like, the computer can schedule any one of these things over your radio software and cause you problems. We’ve spent many years working with our customers to find and solve these problems. And while we solve the vast majority of them, we know when we sell a “fat pipe” radio, that any given customer may require help to overcome an issue due largely to an interaction between Windows and other devices or software loaded on their computer (which we happily provide). Direct sampling radios are seriously data bandwidth hungry and it seemed senseless to push the envelope and our luck with including the PC in the “radio system” and sending it gobs more data.
We have a test lab that lets us load all of the permutations and combinations of Windows software in under five minutes. So we can switch to 32-bit Windows XP from 64-bit Windows 8 on the same computer in five minutes. And we have to do this to test PowerSDR. At any minute, Microsoft might release a patch that causes an issue in our software that we have to work around. Or a particular piece of code we wrote might work better on one version of the operating system than another. Or one of the drivers for FireWire or USB might react differently to a software change on a given operating system. We have to check all these out and “run them to ground” with our fat pipe radios. It comes with the territory.
From a networking standpoint, the data that comes out of a fat pipe radio requires massive network bandwidth to transport the signal. Remember that 200kHz of bandwidth takes about 13Mbps of data to move over the Ethernet. I bet there are very few of you that have a 13Mbps upload speed on your Internet connection and this is just from one receiver. This means that you can’t hook the radio to the Internet and operate that way. You would still have to add a computer in the mix.
With all of our experience in the fat pipe radio architecture, we looked at this architecture long and hard when we were planning the FLEX-6000 Signature Series Line (FLEX-6700 and FLEX-6500). It would have been easy for us to build an Ethernet fat pipe radio next. Heck we could have built one that produces 10Gbps of Ethernet for the ham community if we thought the ham community would like that radio. But we were thinking about what you want. We were thinking about what we would want — after all, we’re hams too. And a fat pipe radio was not the answer. Our customers are buying fun, capabilities, excitement and performance. They want a radio they can plug in, power on and work someone. Our customers know the value of a truly visual radio and the highest performance receivers in the world.
So we pulled the computing power back in the radio. But it’s not the computing power of a PC — it’s many times the power of a PC. With the advent of the Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) we can get many times the power of a PC inside the radio. And this opened up new capability doors for us and ultimately you. I was asked in a forum at Hamvention this year if I had it to do over, would I use a multi-core processor instead of an FPGA. My answer was “no.” In a direct sampling radio the radio has to consume a massive amount of data very quickly. In the FLEX-6700 we process over eight Gigabits of data per second. That’s a terabyte hard drive worth of data every two minutes. Making this amount of data processing work smoothly on a PC is just unrealistic. We felt the time had come to abandon this 10-year-old architecture and move to a new architecture that can achieve another quantum leap in performance and capabilities. Was it going to be hard abandoning the old architecture and starting over? Yes, it was very painful and I have a group of very tired engineers. But it was the right thing to do for you, our friends and customers.
So I’ve rambled a while and I’d like to summarize some of the key benefits of the architecture we chose:
1. By doing all of the processing inside the radio, we are able to limit the data going from the radio to the PC down to only what you, as a human, are going to consume. So we send beautiful panadapters at up to 30 frames per second. A large SmartSDR panadapter, spanning a 1080p display at 25fps and showing you better than 14MHz of RF bandwidth, consumes about 1Mbps of data. A fat pipe radio showing you a fraction of that RF bandwidth (1MHz) consumes more than 75 Mbps of data! That is a thousand-fold improvement in network bandwidth. And we’re not even done yet — we can and will do better. I won’t be satisfied until you start sending me letters explaining how you bagged rare DX from the beach on a tablet connected over a cellular network! Can you do this with a fat pipe radio using Skype, Team Viewer, and an extra computer? Sure. Is it fun and easy? No, not really. It’s hard and we wanted to fix that.
2. The complete “system” that makes the radio work is all in the radio. It’s under our control and we know how to make it work every time. The “out of box” experience of the FLEX-6000 is unprecedented in our history. We continue to get notes from new customers that say “I plugged it in and it just worked!” This is the benefit of having everything in the box. You can run SmartSDR on your computer and in the middle of a contact kick the plug on the computer and continue the contact on your radio (you might have a hard time tuning the radio, though).
3. Networking is at the center of the radio. SmartSDR was written from the ground up with networking in mind. Every part of the radio was designed while we asked “OK, but how will that work over the network?” We are painfully aware that we are not giving you the ability to operate the radio over the Internet today. Someone even whispered in my ear this week that they had heard that we were not going to deliver networking on the radio. Nothing could be further from the truth! This radio IS a network radio. It’s like suggesting that we were selling bicycles, but that we had decided that we weren’t going to let you ride our latest bicycle — that it was just for sitting on. Networking runs through the veins of the FLEX-6000 and it wants to come out and play. We’ll get there as soon as we can.
Most of us are used to buying a product from a manufacturer that is finished and will not be upgraded other than an occasional fix here or there. For most of us it is foreign to buy something that the manufacturer says “will continue to get better” or evolve over time. We understand this. We know we’re first, that we’re pushing the envelope and that some will scoff at what we’re doing. But, it’s who we are. It’s simply too much fun for us to continue writing amazing features and delivering them to you and then watching you say “Thanks for a new radio!” We know a radio is a big investment and we want that investment to pay off for you in a big way and not just today — tomorrow also. We are grateful that you, as our customers, share our vision and want to be a part of what we are doing. Without you, we would not be able to do the things we do. Thanks for being a part of our family and a part of the future of ham radio.
Don’t forget to register for our FlexRadio Seminar !