Long Live EDA: Modular System-level Circuit Engineering Online

Zachariah Peterson
|  Created: September 27, 2019  |  Updated: March 30, 2021

Boards on a backplane in a modular instrument

Modular instruments like this are much easier with online electronics design software


If you’re familiar with the electronics design automation (EDA) industry, you’ll find plenty of similarities. These important software platforms have been the mainstay of electronics development since the 1980’s. Although there is plenty of differentiation between different products, as well as various levels of integration, these platforms have always seemed esoteric to anyone that is not a professional electronics engineer.

There are some alternatives to the standard group of EDA programs. Browser-based design programs started to proliferate alongside the internet, although these programs focus on PCB design and not overall systems design. The systems design tools on the market do little to automate the most time-consuming portions of PCB design which are required for ensuring power integrity and signal integrity. Likewise, PCB design tools that can automate these important design aspects are too granular; they automate minute portions of board design rather than automating connections between different functional blocks in a system.

As more traditional companies transform themselves into technology companies, consultants and engineers at all levels need tools that find the right balance between system-level design and PCB design. When these tools are accessible in an online environment, designers have the features they need to create cutting-edge systems without becoming mired at the PCB level.

System-level Design vs. Board-level Design

What is the difference between system-level design and board-level design? The distinction may not be so obvious. Most electronics designers work at the integrated circuit (ICs) and PCB level. IC designers are focused on integrating discrete circuits into a single chip that can be mounted on a PCB as part of an overall system. PCB designers stay at the board level and focus on connecting passive components and ICs together into functional blocks as part of a device, or they focus on the entire device itself.

System-level design is a bit ambiguous. A PCB designer can act like a systems designer, but not all systems designers are PCB designers. The systems level designer focuses on linking multiple electronic functional blocks, or even multiple boards, and various other components into a completed product. The idea is to focus on how different portions of a system exchange data, receive power, and connect to other devices over standardized communication protocols.

With newer products requiring ever more embedded computing power, such as IoT and smart devices, many hardware engineers are starting to lead a double life as a software engineer. This requires developing code on standard COMs that controls data processing and exchange throughout a device. This is a particular aspect of systems level design that is normally relegated to embedded software engineers. However, designers that are not professional embedded systems engineers can expedite their design process without being a polyglot when they have access to the right design tools.

Modular online electronics design

Software development has been modular for years, and hardware design is finally catching up

Enter Modular Electronics Design

When it comes to systems design, budding engineers need tools that help accelerate product development in a modular fashion. For the systems designer, there is still a lack of tools available for developing production-ready electronics designs online. This is where modular design tools become critical for systems designers. All these challenges can be overcome with the right design software that expedites important board-level and systems-level design with a modular process.

Most legacy system design platforms only provide a view of an abstract systems level without a concrete view of how each portion of a system will look on a finished PCB. Likewise, PCB design software is excellent for board-level circuit design and layout, i.e., designing an individual module, but they fail to allow designers to quickly link together multiple modules with standard protocols.

Modular systems design finds a balance between the board level and the abstract system level. This means your modular designs can be application agnostic; their performance is only limited by module capabilities, but modules can be easily arranged to accommodate a variety of applications.

Modular software is excellent for automating the design and implementation of board-level connections between different functional blocks in a system. Individual portions of PCB design are omitted from this board in order to keep the user’s focus at the system level rather than the board level. In this type of software interface, a systems-level designer does not need to worry about creating connections between different modules in a system like a single board computer. These connections between different modules are already defined at the hardware level, allowing a system designer to focus on the functionality of a new product rather than specific portions of a PCB layout.

What Makes Great Modular Online Electronics Design Software?

Modular system-level design expedites many of the complicated aspects of circuit board design, allowing the designer to focus on connecting modules together to produce the desired functionality. The best modular online electronics design software should include the following features:

  • An extensive library of standard embedded computing and connectivity modules for interfacing with various components, both within a single board and between multiple boards
  • Available COMs for use in these modules to control data processing and exchange throughout a system
  • Rules checking features that immediately identify open connections and clearance violations

This type of interface combines the best features from top-notch EDA software inside a browser-based interface for system-level design. The standard modules can be easily connected together into a completed system, just as you would do with passive components and ICs in your PCB design software.

Placing these features into a browser-based platform allows a designer to work on their projects from anywhere, and without purchasing a license for a desktop application. This also provides cloud backup and sharing features that are not available in all desktop applications. The list of possible applications with this type of design software is extensive and is only limited by the capabilities of each module in your system.

Online electronics design interface

The ideal interface for modular electronics design online

With the online electronics design tools in Upverter (previously known as Geppetto), you can quickly create cutting-edge, fully functional modular hardware systems in a browser-based design interface. You’ll have access to industry-standard COMs and modules that run on popular hardware platforms, making your designs production ready and adaptable for nearly any application.

Contact us today to learn more about our products, design tools, and services.

About Author

About Author

Zachariah Peterson has an extensive technical background in academia and industry. He currently provides research, design, and marketing services to companies in the electronics industry. Prior to working in the PCB industry, he taught at Portland State University and conducted research on random laser theory, materials, and stability. His background in scientific research spans topics in nanoparticle lasers, electronic and optoelectronic semiconductor devices, environmental sensors, and stochastics. His work has been published in over a dozen peer-reviewed journals and conference proceedings, and he has written 2500+ technical articles on PCB design for a number of companies. He is a member of IEEE Photonics Society, IEEE Electronics Packaging Society, American Physical Society, and the Printed Circuit Engineering Association (PCEA). He previously served as a voting member on the INCITS Quantum Computing Technical Advisory Committee working on technical standards for quantum electronics, and he currently serves on the IEEE P3186 Working Group focused on Port Interface Representing Photonic Signals Using SPICE-class Circuit Simulators.

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