Altium Vault Technology - A Foundation for the Management of Design Data

April 12, 2016 Jason Howie

 

A look at Altium's new Vault Technology from the perspective of a tech writer in the trenches! A standalone solution, this technology provides a key foundation element, arguably the backbone, of Altium’s Design Data Management System.

As a technical writer at Altium, my job entails its fair share of exciting new challenges. Having to keep abreast of cutting edge new features and functionality is, as the saying goes, my ‘bread and butter’.

 

To say that things intensify during the countdown to a release would be the classic definition of an understatement. Having to write key concepts for areas as they are still being developed takes skill, courage, and a constant supply of coffee!

 

From one day to the next, the priority for what is needed can change (sometimes from one minute to the next!). Currently, I am looking at the new Altium Vault technology. A standalone solution, this technology provides a key foundation element, arguably the backbone, of Altium’s Design Data Management System.

 

As with most high-level features to be documented, the main point of contact for gathering information is the developer. In this case, I sat down with the lead developer (someone whose identity we keep secret, a bit like the Stig on Top Gear) to run through the ins and outs of an Altium Vault at a conceptual level. As he took me through it all, I must confess that I couldn’t wait to get back in the writing trenches and tap away some draft words about this area. It’s often the case when writing about software that some features are cool, some features are a joy to write about, and some simply aren’t! But in this case, the whole concept of an Altium Vault is engaging - and with this comes excitement and the fuel that drives me on at 3:00am in the morning to elaborate on just a few elements of this concept. (Thank you for your commitment. Now get back to your work. Ed.)

 

So what’s got me stirred up like a kid in a candy store? The fact that an Altium Vault is the key to the door and, in essence the heartbeat, of the new Data Management and high-integrity board design release paradigm.

 

This thing is to data what a bank is to your money. Actually, scratch that. Banks might not be such a great analogy to use in this current climate. Think more a centralized repository that guarantees the integrity of your data. Way back when we first sketched these concepts we realized we had to provide credible data integrity and easy access. We think we have. The Vault concept is robust, secure and yet allows you, and all others in the wider product development team, to get at that data when needed, assured you are all working with the same released and approved data. All on the ‘same page’, so-to-speak.

 

The vault technology itself is provided courtesy of two different Morfik Application Servers (XApps), whose primary user-interface is through a web-browser using HTML and JavaScript via an HTTP protocol. Both servers have a data interface that is based on SOAP over HTTP/HTTPS. The first of these servers is an authentication server, providing an Identity Service that is used to handle identification of users and decide what access they have to the second server, which is the actual Altium Vault Server.

 

Altium’s vault technology comes in a number of different flavors, to accommodate the requirements of different organizations and design teams. If you are a Subscriber plan member of the AltiumLive community, you will have access to, install, and use, a Satellite Vault. With this type, the Altium Vault in which your data are stored is installed on your LAN/WAN, with the authentication performed through AltiumLive’s Identity Service. If you need an independent, standalone vault system, you can opt for the Enterprise Vault. Owned and operated by you, this is a separately-licensed software solution, where both Altium Vault and Identity Service are installed to your network. And in the future, Managed Vaults will be cloud-based, hosted vaults, running entirely within AltiumLive as an on-demand service that we will manage.

 

And because an Altium Vault is delivered as a web server and is separate to Altium Designer, you can access it from within Altium Designer and from your favorite web browser, anywhere in the world that you can get a connection.

 

In fact, you can even install an instance of a Satellite or Enterprise Vault on your own local machine, giving you your own personal vault space!

 

Now an Altium Vault holds all your data that can be released from the Design Space. I’m talking components and their associated domain models, managed schematic sheets of circuitry, source design documents and templates, and of course, generated data from configurations of board design projects themselves - the data that you use to fabricate a board, and the data that you use to assemble it in accordance with a Bill of Materials.

 

In fact, you use an Altium Vault to store more than just data that are released from the Design Space. You can also use it  to handle other data, for example, data that might originate from the Supply Chain space. Part Choice Lists are a good example of data that are very much vault-based in nature, but are not sourced from the design side, and are therefore not ‘released’ entities.

 

And it stores these data as Items of different types. For example, each releasable design-side entity is mapped to a unique Item of a particular type. So a component definition would be mapped to a Component Item in the vault, a schematic library symbol to a symbol Item, and so on. And these Items are revised, meaning that each time you need to change a source entity on the design side, you release it into a new revision of its associated (and linked) Item. In this way, no data are ever overwritten. And each revision is uniquely identified, so you always know which revision you are using!

 

For each revision you can manage its lifecycle. The vault caters for any number of lifecycle definitions, and indeed carries its own default set ranging from basic, through simple, to fully structured ,with states, state transitions and stages. Using this lifecycle management, you can see what a particular Item can be used for: whether a component can be safely used in that next design; whether the design of that flux triangulator can be sent to manufacturing for a full-force production run; or whether it is only available for short-spin prototyping. And you control the associated permissions here: only those with the authority to elevate the state of an Item can do so.

 

What’s more, the vault has the smarts to flag an error if you try to promote a parent Item with child Items in the wrong state: you can’t say that a component is ready to use if its models haven’t been released yet!

 

Want to know where a particular Item is used? Say no more. The vault structure means you can, at any time, click on an Item and find out where it is used, anywhere in the vault. This is great for managing components, which are the mainstream building blocks of designs themselves. It’s also great for managing schematic sheets of circuitry that can themselves be reused as part of a design project.

 

So you have highly secure data with their integrity remaining intact. All design data, side-by-side in the one vault. But not unordered. No sir, with a swish of the mouse you quickly set up a folder hierarchy, bringing logical order to the world. In fact, an Altium Vault supports the use of three high-level folders or ‘zones’ of content, so you can easily segregate the vault into areas for “component management”, “design content management”, and “production release”.

 

Well, it’s getting late here in Australia (or should I say very early?) so I’ll sign off for now. But I hope my rattling of the keyboard at this unsociable hour has planted the seed of excitement in your own mind with what Altium’s Vault technology is and what it can offer. Rest assured I’ll delve deeper into this area in the coming weeks and string some more words together. And words that take you from the conceptual level to the deep-down and dirty implementation level, including how to work with the vault, manage folders and Items, release to the vault, and oh...browser-based interaction with the vault.

 

About the Author

Jason Howie

Jason Howie is the Head of Technical Writing at Altium. He brings a wealth of technical writing experience and can often be heard rattling the keyboard into the early hours. Prior to joining Altium in May 2000, Jason spent just over 4 years at the Joint European Torus in Oxfordshire, UK, as part of the Machine Instrumentation & Protection Systems.

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