Bufferbloat, The Internet, And How To Fix It

There’s a dreaded disease that’s plagued Internet Service Providers for years. OK, there’s probably several diseases, but today we’re talking about bufferbloat. What it is, how to test for it, and finally what you can do about it. Oh, and a huge shout-out to all the folks working on this problem. Many programmers and engineers, like Vint Cerf, Dave Taht, Jim Gettys, and many more have cracked this nut for our collective benefit.

When your computer sends a TCP/IP packet to another host on the Internet, that packet routes through your computer, through the network card, through a switch, through your router, through an ISP modem, through a couple ISP routers, and then finally through some very large routers on its way to the datacenter. Or maybe through that convoluted chain of devices in reverse, to arrive at another desktop. It’s amazing that the whole thing works at all, really. Each of those hops represents another place for things to go wrong. And if something really goes wrong, you know it right away. Pages suddenly won’t load. Your VoIP calls get cut off, or have drop-outs. It’s pretty easy to spot a broken connection, even if finding and fixing it isn’t so trivial.

That’s an obvious problem. What if you have a non-obvious problem? Sites load, but just a little slower than it seems like they used to. You know how to use a command line, so you try a ping test. Huh, 15.0 ms off to Google.com. Let it run for a hundred packets, and essentially no packet loss. But something’s just not right. When someone else is streaming a movie, or a machine is pushing a backup up to a remote server, it all falls apart. That’s bufferbloat, and it’s actually really easy to do a simple test to detect it. Run a speed test, and run a ping test while your connection is being saturated. If your latency under load goes through the roof, you likely have bufferbloat. There are even a few of the big speed test sites that now offer bufferbloat tests. But first, some history. Continue reading “Bufferbloat, The Internet, And How To Fix It”

From Nanoamps To Gigahertz: The World’s Most Extreme Op Amps

The operational amplifier, or op amp, is one of the most basic building blocks used in analog circuits. Ever since single-chip op amps were introduced in the 1960s, thousands of different types have been developed, some more successful than others. Ask an experienced analog designer to name a few op amps, and they’ll likely mention the LM324, the TL072, the NE5534, the LM358, and of course the granddaddy of all, the uA741.

If those part numbers don’t mean anything to you, all you need to know is that these are generic components that you can buy anywhere and that will do just fine in the most common applications. You can buy fancier op amps that improve on some spec or another, sometimes by orders of magnitude. But how far can you really push the concept of an operational amplifier? Today we’ll show you some op amps that go way beyond these typical “jellybean” components.

Before we start, let’s define what exactly we mean when we say “operational amplifier”. We’re looking for integrated op amps, meaning a single physical component, that have a differential high-impedance voltage input, a single-ended voltage output, DC coupling, and high gain meant to be used in a feedback configuration. We’re excluding anything made from discrete components, as well as less-general circuits like fixed-gain amplifiers and operational transconductance amplifiers (OTAs).

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Say It With Me: Bandwidth

Bandwidth is one of those technical terms that has been overloaded in popular speech: as an example, an editor might ask if you have the bandwidth to write a Hackaday piece about bandwidth. Besides this colloquial usage, there are several very specific meanings in an engineering context. We might speak about the bandwidth of a signal like the human voice, or of a system like a filter or an oscilloscope — or, we might consider the bandwidth of our internet connection. But, while the latter example might seem fundamentally different from the others, there’s actually a very deep and interesting connection that we’ll uncover before we’re done.

Let’s have a look at what we mean by the term bandwidth in various contexts.

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X-Rays Are The Next Frontier In Space Communications

Hundreds of years from now, the story of humanity’s inevitable spread across the solar system will be a collection of engineering problems solved, some probably in heroic fashion. We’ve already tackled a lot of these problems in our first furtive steps into the wider galaxy. Our engineering solutions have taken humans to the Moon and back, but that’s as far as we’ve been able to send our fragile and precious selves.

While we figure out how to solve the problems keeping us trapped in the Earth-Moon system, we’ve sent fleets of robotic emissaries to do our exploration by proxy, to make the observations we need to frame the next set of engineering problems to be solved. But as we reach further out into the solar system and beyond, our exploration capabilities are increasingly suffering from communications bottlenecks that restrict how much data we can ship back to Earth.

We need to find a way to send vast amounts of data back as quickly as possible using as few resources as possible on both ends of the communications link. Doing so may mean turning away from traditional radio communications and going way, way up the dial and developing practical means for communicating with X-rays.

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Video: Putting High Speed PCB Design To The Test

Designing circuit boards for high speed applications requires special considerations. This you already know, but what exactly do you need to do differently from common board layout? Building on where I left off discussing impedance in 2 layer Printed Circuit Board (PCB) designs, I wanted to start talking about high speed design techniques as they relate to PCBs.  This is the world of multi-layer PCBs and where the impedance of both the Power Delivery Network (PDN) and the integrity of the signals themselves (Signal Integrity or SI) become very important factors.

I put together a few board designs to test out different situations that affect high speed signals. You’ve likely heard of vias and traces laid out at right angles having an impact. But have you considered how the glass fabric weave in the board itself impacts a design? In this video I grabbed some of my fanciest test equipment and put these design assumptions to the test. Have a look and then join me after the break for more details on what went into this!

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Tearing Into A $1.3 Million Oscilloscope

Most hackers are rankled by those “Warranty Void If Broken” seals on the sides of new test equipment. Even if they’re illegal, they at least put the thought in your head that the space inside your new gear is off-limits, and that prevents you from taking a look at what’s inside. Simply unacceptable.

[Shahriar] has no fear of such labels and tears into just about everything that comes across his bench. Including, most recently, a $1.3 million 110-GHz oscilloscope from Keysight. It’s a teardown that few of us will ever get the chance to do, and fewer still would be brave enough to attempt. Thankfully he does, and the teardown video below shows off the remarkable engineering that went into this monster.

The numbers boggle the mind. Apart from the raw bandwidth, this is a four-channel scope (althought the unit [Shahriar] tested is a two-channel) that doesn’t split its bandwidth across channels. The sampling rate is 256 GS/s and the architecture is 10-bits, so this thing is dealing with 10 terabits per second. We found the extra thick PCBs, which are perhaps 32-layer boards, to be especially interesting, and [Shariar]’s tour of the front end was fascinating.

It all sounds like black magic at first, but he really makes the technology approachable, and his appreciation for fine engineering is obvious. If you’ve got even a passing interest in RF electronics you should check it out. You might want to brush up on microwave topics first, though; this Doppler radar teardown might help.

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Choosing A ‘Scope: Examining Bandwidth

A few weeks ago I asked the Hackaday community for some help and advice in buying a new budget oscilloscope. Thank you very much to those of you who responded both here online and in person among my friends closer to home. I followed the overwhelming trend in the advice I received, and bought myself a Rigol DS1054z, an instrument with which I am very happy. It’s a nominally a 50 MHz scope, but there’s a software hack that can bring it up to 100 MHz. How fast can it go?

My trusty Cossor, its 2 MHz bandwidth as yet unverified.
My trusty Cossor, its 2 MHz bandwidth as yet unverified.

This question became a mini scope-shootout after a conversation with my Hackaday colleague [Elliot] about measuring oscilloscope bandwidth, and then my fellow Oxford Hackspace members producing more than one scope for comparison. You know who you are, thank you. I found myself with ready access to several roughly equivalent models and one very high-end one in specification terms representing different strata of test equipment manufacture, and with the means to examine their performance.

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