Author: Donald Telian, SI Guys - Guest Blogger
a serial link typically involves confirming compliance with one of the many
Serial Link Standards. PCIe, SATA, XFI,
CEI, SFP+, USB, KR4, and so on. With
over a dozen common standards - each with their own compliance nuances - this
feels like it could be a vast and complex topic. Indeed, it takes a full-day class to address only the most
popular standards. While serial links is
the clear winner in signaling methods, there is no clear winner in the realm of
Serial Standards. Instead, we see a
growing amount of application-specific specifications focused on various
industry segments sourced by an array of standards organizations. But are there things all standards have in
common at the electrical level? …and how
is the SI simulation task similar, regardless of the standard? These are the questions I'll be addressing
In practice, I confirm "compliance" using the relevant
Specification combined with a dash of experience. Over time I've developed a matrix of what
works that juxtaposes data rate, length, and interconnect medium. This is helpful because Specifications are not
perfect; some lacking important requirements while others have too many. This is the challenge of crafting a good
standard: specify enough parameters to
ensure performance and compatibility while not over-constraining the design
space and hence product and market options. Sometimes unnecessary items creep in due to a compromise between
competitors or a new feature in an oscilloscope. As such, confirming "compliance" is similar
to all other Signal Integrity tasks: Engineering
In the past six months I've done projects utilizing 15
different specifications covering a 30x variation in data rate. That's a lot of variation. And the challenge of the SI task does not
track data rate because slower speeds that break the rules (e.g., too many
connectors, too much length, etc.) introduce risk and complexity. Whatever the case, all projects want to know
the answer to the same question: "Will it work?". And waiting until hardware is built is too
late to find out.
Can Pre-Hardware Simulation Resolve Compliance?
If you've worked with a Serial Standard you have likely
discovered "Compliance Testing" is primarily oriented towards physical hardware. It is important to understand this unstated
assumption when you approach a Specification because hardware test uses tools
and language that differ from simulation. With some standards you will wonder if it's even possible to confirm
compliance using simulation but let me assure you it is. While it may not be feasible to use
simulation for a few requirements in a specification, you will find the
majority within reach.
Thankfully, the major SI simulations tools have helped automate
the compliance task. Kits and Wizards
guide you through the process, saving substantial time. Some tools gather up the relevant outputs and
write the Compliance Report for you. Too
good to be true? Perhaps. Learn to sift through the automation,
leveraging whatever is helpful. Engineers must engineer; you wouldn't expect a Nascar driver to use a
self-driving car, right?
Despite the wide array of Standards, at the electrical/PHY
level serial links are surprisingly similar. Data rates imply edge rates and equalization capabilities, and it is
possible for a single SerDes to configure itself to support every
standard. FPGAs do this every day. This fact alone suggests electrical compliance
has similarities across the maze of specifications.
Every specification provides electrical parameters for the Tx (Transmitter), the Rx (Receiver), and the interconnect or "channel" between
them. Unless you're working at an IC company, you will primarily be concerned with the channel - managing its loss
and discontinuities. And, if
at all possible, you'll engage in optimizing and configuring Tx
and Rx equalization (Step
7). While some specifications offer decent guidance on the channel, I find many to be too brief - particularly
since this is our primary concern. And so, again, it's important to leverage your experience and judgment.
100 Ohm interconnect is still the leader in channel differential
impedance. While PCIe has dabbled
with 85 Ohms, it has not found widespread acceptance. With most connectors centered on 100 Ohms,
even many PCIe implementations choose to implement 100 Ohm interconnect. And with 8 mil drills becoming commonplace, via
impedance has risen to 100 Ohms as well. Press-fit connector tails can be problematic, but improvements are
happening there too.
actual devices do not implement what you find in a Specification and typically
have much more than required. It may be
the IC vendor borrowed a SerDes core from another interface, or they chose to
differentiate their product by equalizing in ways their competitors do not. As such, view the equalization required by
the specification as a minimum set. And
if a specification, like SATA, is silent about equalization that doesn't mean
it's not there; you will still find it in components.
Passive and Active Compliance, and COM
A good specification provides both passive and active
metrics useful in the context of simulation. I believe both are important, so if I scour a specification and can't
find one or the other I will borrow them from experience.
The most important passive metrics are masks for Insertion
Loss (IL) and Return Loss (RL). Respectively,
these bound the two problems found in every interconnect: Loss and Discontinuities (Steps
1 and 2). There's also Insertion
Loss Deviation (ILD) that further bounds discontinuities. Masks overlay on your channel's S-parameters
and indicate where and how your interconnect might be problematic. IL masks should have both a min and max, and
RL masks should clearly state how they are meant to be tested. It's common to fail an RL mask if you fail to
add the model for a compliance module assumed by the specification.
To illustrate the importance of examining both IL and RL
masks, consider the five system characteristics (delineated by five colors) in
Figure 1. Insertion Loss masks (black,
at left) bound a min/max range in which the gold system does the best at
finding the center, while the two shades of blue ride on the edges of the
mask. Looking at Return Loss (right),
both blues and even red sit right on the mask (black). How can that be when their IL characteristics
are so different? This happened because
in the physical system all three begin with a miss-matched (reflective)
connector that dominates RL. This type
of issue can easily be seen using TDR
plots. RL could be improved by
either using a different connector or adding some loss in front of it. For RL, the gold system again shows the best overall
margin to the mask.
Figure 1: InsertionLoss (left) and Return Loss (right) for Five Systems, with Masks
Passive masks help calibrate and tune your interconnect, yet
do not necessarily guarantee active performance. Significant effort has been put into
developing a passive test that can do this, yet it remains the "holy grail"
of serial link simulation methodology. It's
important to understand the systems in Figure 1 that fail the masks may not
fail in practice. While the blue systems
are at the edge of mask ranges the only clear conclusion is that their loss is
at the edges of the design space comprehended by the writers of the
specification; and specifications cannot comprehend everything that might and
can work in practice. Nevertheless, these
reference points are helpful. If I was asked
to work with the dark blue system's (low loss) IL I would work to minimize
discontinuities because this system is less damped. And if my system had the light blue (high
loss) IL I would think about swapping materials or put more thought into how
the channel is equalized. I would not
immediately discount even the red channel's IL because, as stated previously,
the equalization capabilities in actual components typically far surpass a specification's expectations. An AMI model or even a
good datasheet would show me to what extent that's true.
Passive metrics provide reference points you can use to tune
your interconnect while active simulation provides better insight into link
performance. Common active compliance
metrics are eye masks and BERs. Eye
openings are simulated using AMI models, and observed in physical devices by
accessing internal IC eye capture features. Acceptable eye openings have shrunk from 100s to 10s of millivolts. Eye opening masks assume a waveform probability
and BERs are a probability, and those numbers are changing too. For active testing, many standards specify an
"Rx Tolerance Test" that sends a "stressed" signal to the Rx to test its
ability to recover a noisy, minimal signal. Though these tests presume test equipment and physical hardware, they
can typically be implemented using simulation.
COM is not short for "Compliance" or "Complicated" but is an
acronym for "Channel Operating Margin". COM
straddles the fence between passive and active compliance, looking like a
passive metric while adding in an array of active parameters and assumptions. Based on a complex set of mathematics, COM
strives to answer the "will it work?" question with a single number: 3 dB. If that sounds too good to be true, understand that much of COM's acceptance lies in the fact it dared to offer a figure of merit at a time when
very few would. Today it has become a
common compliance reference point, even though that was not its original
Compliance and Modularity
At times your design ends at an industry standard connector;
either you're designing a system another device plugs into, or you're designing
a device or add-in card that plugs into a system. Now the SI task must resolve only half of a
serial link. This is what "Standards" excel at, and I find they do a good job of bounding what is expected on both
sides of the connector. Some specifications
even offer SI models for the side of the link you do not control. Particularly for RL tests, it is important to
add in the spec's interconnect assumption or model for what is on the other
side of a connector. For active
analysis, a conservative approach is to use your simulator's AMI template and
build a "spec model" for the unknown part of the system. Set the model's parameters at the minimum
Tx/Rx behaviors required by the specification - items such as impedance,
rise/fall times, and equalization. If
your analysis shows good performance with this type of model, confidence of
success with open-market devices is high.
Examples of Corrections for Compliance
Simulating link compliance always reveals something to fix
or improve. Work
with your layout team to resolve the right trade-offs between performance
and complexity. Perhaps some examples
will be helpful? Here are some things
resolved on recent projects:
- Interconnect does not have enough loss. Use Df/Lt of 0.01
instead of 0.003.
- Lengths are too long. Use other route layers to get to
the connector in 7" max
- Via stubs are too long. Need to back-drill under components.
- Connector is too reflective. Enforce minimum length from
IC to connector of 2.5".
- Tx is over-equalized. Turn off Tx EQ.
- Connector impedance
too low. Lower route impedance on both
sides from 100 to 90 Ohms.
- RL margin better
than IL margin. Constrain max route
- Press-fit tails
create stubs. Route on lower layers.
satisfies both passive and active metrics as is. Re-drivers are not needed.
Each of these changes showed improvement in simulation, and
some corrected physical system failures.
Resolving link compliance for the wide array of Serial
Standards seems daunting yet doesn't have to be. At the Tx-Channel-Rx electrical level, all
serial links are similar. It's important
to leverage available tools and experience to confirm both passive and active
link performance. Leverage
Specifications to the best of your and their ability, expecting to apply
engineering judgment along the way. Simulating
serial links for compliance pre-hardware solves a myriad of issues, shortening
schedules for product manufacturing and hardware test.