As analog-to-digital converter (ADC) designs and architectures continue to advance using smaller geometry process nodes, a new class of GHz ADC products is beginning to emerge. ADCs that can directly RF sample at GHz rates and above, without the interleaving artifacts, provide new solutions to systems for direct RF digitization of communications systems, instrumentation, and radar applications. Formerly, these solutions required multiple stages of filtering, synthesizers, and mixers to translate the input signal to a reference frequency that could then be digitized by an ADC at the 100s of MSPS conversion rate. Now, direct RF sampling can be achieved with the state-of-the-art wideband ADC technology. Keep in mind that speed, although important, is not the only performance factor to consider in your designs. Equal consideration should be given to dynamic range and spectral noise. We will explore these performance dimensions in future articles.
It was not too long ago that the only monolithic ADC architectures to be able to run at GSPS (gigasample per second) speeds were flash converters with six or eight bits of resolution. They were power hungry and typically could not provide an effective number of bits (ENOB) beyond seven bits due to the geometric size and power constraint trade-offs of flash architectures. The only way to be able to sample higher dynamic range analog input signals above 1 GHz was to interleave multiple high speed ADC cores with a sampling clock that had a staggered phase to each core with precise accuracy, or duty cycle. The analog input needed to be split and mixed to each ADC, which provided an opportunity for new signal noise to enter the signal chain and reduce the input power. While this method may provide adequate results for some applications, the design was complex and yielded nasty, unwanted interleaving artifacts in the output frequency domain that needed to be digitally filtered.
Fast, or Half-Fast?
Interleaving “spurs” can be seen in the frequency response of a fast Fourier transform (FFT) where the input offset, gain, bandwidth, and sample timing are not exactly matched across each of the internal interleaved ADC cores. This creates an additional planning complexity for the system engineer to predetermine where interleaving artifacts will be seen in frequency and either avoid or remove them in digital postprocessing. Because each ADC core is discrete, there can be a large potential for manufacturing mismatching variance among these performance parameters during the life of a system in production. These mismatches cause imbalances in the periodicity of the incoming signal and spurious frequencies are seen at the output of interleaved ADCs.
Proprietary ADC technology can now take advantage of advanced architectures and algorithms that prevent the issues seen in dual- and quad-interleaved ADCs. Instead of using two interleaved ADCs at half speed, with added artifacts, the performance can now be achieved in a single ADC at full speed without the interleaving spurs. Factory trim algorithms and on-chip calibration ensure that each ADC operates to the expected high performance standards, as opposed to being exposed to the mismatch variances seen from multiple discrete interleaved cores.
When spurious frequencies are observed in an otherwise spectrally pure FFT, this reduces the available spurious-free dynamic range (SFDR) of the of the carrier signal relative to other noise. To improve the SFDR of GSPS ADCs, new architectures and algorithms are now emerging beyond the use of interleaved cores. This removes the burden for system engineers to have dedicated ADC postprocessing routines that must identify and remove unwanted interleaving spurs.
Simplify the Routing
Multigigasample converters with 10-, 12-, or 14-bit resolution generate a lot of output data, and in a hurry. Use of low voltage differential swing (LVDS) data could require 30 parallel lanes of 1 GBPS data for a 2.5 GSPS, 12-bit ADC.
Handling 30 differential LVDS pairs per ADC can be challenging to route and maintain matched lengths on a system layout. The equivalent data can be sent with only six or eight differential lanes using JESD204B, a high speed serialize/deserialize (SERDES) standard designed specifically for converter interfaces.
JESD204B provides a means to output data at high speeds on fewer data lines without the matched timing board complexities of many high speed LVDS lanes. Since the data sent over JESD204B is framed based on an embedded clock and control characters, the routing of the lower count serial lanes is much more forgiving of timing skew than LVDS, as seen in Figure 2. This removes the need to spend countless hours working to tweak output timing on every I/O of the system PCB. In addition, JESD204B offers informational “control bits” of auxiliary data that can be appended to each analog sample to help characterize the downstream processing. In this fashion, trigger time stamping and overrange conditions can be tagged per sample so that a back-end FPGA can have further intelligence about data alignment and its validity.
Adaptive gain algorithms are important to be able to adjust the amplitude of an analog input signal as a saturated ADC input essentially makes the system blind in its ability to decipher signals. Ideally, the gain adaptation feedback loop should be as fast as possible. Whether the high speed ADC output is LVDS based or uses JESD204B, the added latency of this digital output can often be too long to wait in order to receive the saturated data, detect the issue, and react to the condition.
One solution to this issue is to use a variable level comparison within the ADC core itself and directly send an immediate output flag when an overrange condition occurs. This technique bypasses the latency of the longer back-end output stage, which shortens the feedback time to the amplifier, allowing for a faster adaptive gain cycle. In addition to this “fast overrange detection” output, the overrange samples can be appended with alert bits, using the JESD204B interface, to let downstream system processing make appropriate decisions about the data.
Tune, Filter, and Decimate—What to do With All of the Data
A wideband ADC can offer the benefits of broadband sampling, but also may provide more data than needed in some applications. For those systems that need a high sample rate, but do not need to observe a large frequency spectrum, digital downconversion (DDC) allows a subsampling and filtering strategy for decimating the amount of data output from the GSPS ADC. Downstream processing then observes a smaller portion of the frequency spectrum.
While DDCs are often implemented after the ADC in the signal chain, this not only consumes more resources in an FPGA, but also requires the full bandwidth to be transmitted between ADC and FPGA. Instead of transmitting and processing the sampled data in an FPGA, the DDC filtering can be done within the ADC to see just 1/8 or 1/16 of the total bandwidth.
When used in conjunction with a synthesized numerically controlled oscillator (NCO), the precise placement of the converter’s DDC filter in the band can be tuned with accurate resolution. This permits a lower output rate and eliminates the need to move and process large amounts of unwanted data on an FPGA. When two DDCs are available, each with a unique NCO, they can alternately be stepped across the spectrum to sweep for expected signals, without loss of visibility. This can be a typical use in some radar applications.
The AD9625-2.5 12-bit, 2.5 GSPS ADC from Analog Devices offers better than –75 dBC SFDR performance across a wide bandwidth with a noise spectral density of 150 dBFS/Hz. Proprietary ADI technology achieves this performance without the interleaving artifacts that can typically be seen with GHz ADCs that sample above 1.5 GSPS. An optional dual decimation downconversion filter path with wideband frequency tuners allow system designers the ability to observe only a 1/8 or 1/16 swath of full spectrum bandwidth, each with independent 10-bit NCO placement resolution. The AD9625 uses up to eight lanes of the JESD204B output interface, which relaxes the need for a challenging layout of matched trace routing that is typical of LVDS pairs. In addition, designers can leverage the benefits of JESD204B such as the low pin count output, harmonic frame clocking, control bit information per sample, and deterministic latency.
In conclusion, the trend toward GHz ADC products and systems is being driven, in part, by smaller geometry process nodes that will only decrease in size over the next decade. This will create demand for more ADCs capable of direct RF conversion so architectures can be simplified and design times contained within reasonable limits. It is this combination of speed, simplified design, along with other performance factors like dynamic range and low noise that will push advanced wideband ADC technology to the next level and maybe beyond.