Qualcomm Atheros Improves WLAN Test Speed by 200X

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"Using the software-designed NI PXI vector signal transceiver and the NI WLAN Measurement Suite, we improved test speeds by more than 200 times compared to traditional rack-and-stack instruments while significantly improving test coverage."

- Doug Johnson, Qualcomm Atheros

The Challenge:
Keeping wireless local area network (WLAN) test costs low and test accuracy high while reducing characterization times as device complexity grows by tracking an increasing number of wireless standards.

The Solution:
Using the NI PXI-based vector signal transceiver and the NI LabVIEW FPGA Module to create a customized, flexible WLAN test system that delivers a 200X reduction in test time compared to previous rack-and-stack instruments, resulting in lower test costs and better device characterization.

Doug Johnson - Qualcomm Atheros

For more than two decades, Qualcomm Atheros has been a leader of next-generation wireless technologies for networking, consumer electronics, computing, and mobile device communications. Today, we are evolving high-throughput wireless technologies such as WiFi to meet the demands of new connected applications. The latest Qualcomm Atheros chip is a three-radio multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) transceiver for the latest WiFi standard, 802.11ac.

Requirements for a New WLAN Test System

As wireless standards become more complex, the number of operational modes for these devices increases exponentially. As we progress to the latest WiFi standard, 802.11ac, we’re adding new modulation schemes, more channels, more bandwidth settings, and additional spatial streams. Additionally, characterizing WLAN transceivers is especially challenging when faced with thousands of independent operational gain settings.

Each component of a WLAN transceiver has multiple gain stages. To develop a high-performance radio in a low-cost CMOS process, the design team at Qualcomm Atheros relies on flexible operation at each stage of the radio structure. Multiple gain settings drive a geometric increase in the number of possible setting combinations as each stage is added, which results in hundreds of thousands of data points for a single operational mode. These hundreds of thousands of data points are only for a single radio transceiver, and the number of permutations continues to increase for MIMO configurations where the system uses multiple antennas. This geometric increase in the number of possible setting combinations poses a significant challenge in preventing test times from increasing as well.

Figure 1. An example block diagram of a typical WLAN receiver shows how each component has multiple gain stages, resulting in hundreds of thousands of different possible gain settings for a single receiver.

NI PXI Vector Signal Transceiver and LabVIEW FPGA

To tackle these test time challenges, Qualcomm Atheros uses the NI PXIe-5644R vector signal transceiver. Because the NI PXIe-5644R features an onboard FPGA, we can control the digital interface to the chip simultaneously with the RF signal generator and analyzer included in the vector signal transceiver.

Traditionally, FPGAs have been programmed using the VHSIC hardware description language or Verilog. Many engineers and scientists are either not familiar with these complex languages or require a tool that gives them faster design productivity at a higher level of abstraction to simplify the process of generating FPGA code. LabVIEW is well-suited for FPGA programming because it clearly represents parallelism and data flow, so users who are both experienced and inexperienced in traditional FPGA design can productively apply the power of reconfigurable hardware.

Qualcomm Atheros used LabVIEW to program the FPGA on the NI vector signal transceiver for device under test control and data processing. The processing can take place within the instrument itself rather than requiring transfers back and forth over the bus to the controller, resulting in significantly faster test times.

Figure 2. Qualcomm Atheros digitally controls the device under test by using LabVIEW to program the FPGA on the NI vector signal transceiver.

Traditional rack-and-stack measurements are limited to best estimate gain table selections. In this setup, the team at Qualcomm Atheros determined a final solution through iterative estimations, each of which required a regression of the gain table characterization. This was a slow process that produced approximately 40 meaningful data points per iteration.

After switching to the NI PXI vector signal transceiver, we could perform full gain table sweeps instead of using the iterative approach because of the test time improvements. The team could then characterize the entire range of radio operation in one test sweep per device to acquire all 300,000 data points for better determination of the optimal operational settings empirically. The availability of this data gave us a view of the device operation we had never seen before so that the team could explore operational regimes not previously considered.

Figure3. With traditional instrumentation, approximately 40 points of meaningful WLAN transceiver data were collected per iteration. The speed increase of the NI PXI vector signal transceiver triggered full gain table sweeps to acquire all 300,000 points.

By synchronizing the timing of digital control directly with the RF front end of the instrument, we have seen test times improve by more than 20X over our previous PXI solution and up to 200X over the original solution that used traditional instruments.

Figure 4. By synchronizing the timing of digital control directly with the RF front end of the instrument, Qualcomm Atheros improved test times by 20X over our previous PXI solution and up to 200X over traditional instruments.

Improving Freedom, Flexibility, and Test Throughput

At Qualcomm Atheros, instrumentation flexibility and to-the-pin control are critical for keeping the RF test process as efficient as possible, and we are pleased with the performance gains we’ve seen when testing with the new NI vector signal transceiver. The NI PXIe-5644R provides freedom and flexibility in the way we develop 802.11ac solutions for our customers, and has significantly improved test throughput.

For more information on this application please contact:
Chris N. White
Product Manager, RF and Wireless Test 
National Instruments 

Author Information:
Doug Johnson
Qualcomm Atheros

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