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Telecom test project stirs interest at Ixia

Posted: 29 Nov 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ixia communications? transport test module? networks telecommunications transport?

Motivating a team to design a compact test module for 40Gbps networks was not the easiest thing in the world at a time when market analysts were warning that 40Gb telecommunications transport would remain mired in overcapacity for quarters, or even years, to come.

Yet with the help of ice cream cones and rubber band shooters, the Grand Canyon team of Ixia Communications Inc. rediscovered the fervor that characterized the telecom test community in the heyday of the mid-1990s, and delivered their design on a very tight schedule. Project manager Thananya Hodge said she found a sense of discipline and camaraderie within her team that she had not experienced in years of work within the aerospace industry.

Grand Canyon was tasked with developing a 40Gb bit error-rate tester interface card, the Ixia Load Module, that could fit the form factor of both rack-mounted and chassis-based test platforms offered by Ixia. These are used primarily by developers of physical-layer semiconductors for optical interfaces, such as laser drivers, multiplexers, and transimpedance amplifiers.

Josh Goldstein, director of product management at Ixia, said that the telecom meltdown already was under way when the team was assembled in May 2001, yet "we had to respond to the needs of the customers. We did not have the luxury to hold off on 40Gb testing."

Hodge and Steve Robbins, senior hardware engineer, both had a history at The Boeing Co., and were familiar with tightly knit design groups. Yet as this team was cobbled together, tapping both veterans of the company's 10Gb test program, like Robbins, and newcomers to Ixia, it generated a buzz that Hodge said she had not seen in other projects.

The functionality of the 40Gb tester had to fit within a 4U-board form factor in order to meet Ixia's design requirements. And Hodge put special emphasis on keeping up with the newest physical-layer standards from the Optical Internetworking Forum, in particular the serdes-framer interface standard known as SFI-5. Physical constraints were not always easy to design around.

Robbins said that taking the time to do detailed systems engineering in the beginning, before committing to hardware, helped speed up the later stages. In fact, by early 2002, outsourced boards were arriving so fast that the team often had to work manic hours just to keep up with test and verification. But by planning ahead and studying the implications of different physical- and electronic-layout decisions, Robbins said, the last few months leading to a June demonstration at the Supercomm trade show went smoothly.

Close ties

The Agoura Road neighborhood in Calabasas where Ixia is located is an incestuous one for the telecom test community, with two Spirent Communications facilities nearby. In late 2001, engineers from the two companies often shared cafeterias, so management persuaded Hodge to develop a code word for the Load Module project. She settled on national parks and monuments, and Grand Canyon seemed a natural pick for the 40Gb effort.

Like many design teams, the Grand Canyon group had to develop carrot-and-stick incentives for disciplined and collaborative work. Since big-ticket items like stock options did not mean a lot in the recessionary period of 2001-02, Hodge settled for ice cream and rubber band guns. These did not always work with a distributed staff, including the company's FPGA expert - universally and reverently referred to as "Remote Bob" - but often made for comical workplace scenes.

One time, said Hodge, the group was working on deskewing the SFI-5 interface. Hodge grabbed a rubber band gun and warned, in best John Wayne style, "No one leaves this room until I get some answers." Making even the discipline a joke proved to further motivate the team to work closely together and develop trust in one another and pride in their work, Hodge said.

Robbins said that groups outside the design team began catching the fever early this year, when a dedicated bulletin board for Grand Canyon went up, featuring pictures of the team and diagrams or photos showing development milestones. Hodge said she was amazed by the way apparently tangential groups, like shipping and packaging, treated the project as their own.

'Brilliant scheme'

"Our shipping supervisor came up with a brilliant four-up packaging scheme for the boards," she said. "And he took it upon himself to get excited about our schedule and meet it. We did not have to come running for help."

The team added an extra duty in the home stretch, electing to design an evaluation module for developers to work with the SFI-5 interface. Hodge said that the last few weeks in late May involved the typical weekend and late-night scramble to get everything in place. But it paid off. Ixia was ready to show the test system at both Supercomm and the National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference in late summer.

"Sometimes people think you cannot develop this kind of design environment when the market is down, and everyone is going through cutbacks and layoffs," Hodge said. "But this was the most exciting and focused design effort I have experienced in my life."

- Loring Wirbel

EE Times

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