Retromaster’s Electronics Projects

…related to old computers and other assorted stuff…

Posts Tagged ‘XC95’

Cumulus Bus Saga Continues

Posted by retromaster on August 22, 2011

Here is today’s second post: Another update on Cumulus.

First, the bad news: It looks like with the most recent change to CumuluBus, Cumulus bus errors were greatly reduced, but not completely eliminated. This is the case with the long cable setup.

Now the good news: I have tried the short cable setup (using the two closely-located connectors on the IDE cable), and during extensive testing, I have not encountered any bus-related issues.

What does this mean? It means that on some Orics the long cable setup may not work properly. In these cases, Cumulus will most probably still work fine in the short cable setup, though. It will be a somewhat inconvenient, though, as the cable length is not more than 10cms.

Why does this happen? Here is my guess:

The CPLD used in the Cumulus (XC95XL series) is a relatively modern part (at least compared to the Oric, that is). It has pin signal rise times in the range of a few nanoseconds.

In the current Cumulus design, the CPLD is connected to the data bus over a level-shifter IC (also w/ fast rise times) and directly connected to most of the bus control signals. The connection is by means of the 80-wire IDE cable. When the length of this cable exceeds a certain threshold, the cable starts to exhibit “transmission line” effects. Without the necessary termination on both ends of the cable, these effects cause significant signal integrity issues.

Even with the “SLOW” rise time setting on the output drivers, the XC95XL is fast enough to limit the length of the cable to just about 10cms.

I have to admit that I have overlooked this aspect of the design. I thought that since the frequencies on the Oric bus are so low, there would not be problems over a long cable. However, I failed to see that it is the rise time that’s the real governing parameter here, which was a mistake. This is most likely why things go wrong with the long cable setup.

One way of solving this problem could be by adding “slow” (74hc or 4000-series CMOS) buffers on the Cumulus side. Since these parts have much higher rise times, the permitted cable could be much longer. An additional advantage is that this way, possibly, CumuluBus could be eliminated! However, it would take a significant redesign effort, and it would enlarge the main PCB by quite a bit. To tell the truth, I am not really motivated to go through another design cycle, especially considering that Cumulus seems to work fine with the short cable setup.

Posted in Projects, Retrocomputing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments »

Cumulus Further Progress

Posted by retromaster on November 22, 2010

Cumulus doesn’t work quite reliably yet, but here is a screenshot of it booting into Oric DOS.

I’ve implemented the seek/step/restore commands, together with the read sector and read address commands. This seems to be the bare minimum for the Microdisc ROM to boot the OS. Unfortunately, there is a random error with the Oric Bus that causes miserable crashes (the screen filling up with garbage, etc.). When it does not happen, I can get the Oric to boot the OS. Most of the time, it does not work, though.

Getting to this stage took a fair bit of debugging and some important modifications. My original CPLD implementation contained an almost exact replica of the original Microdisc schematics. I found out that this did not work very well with the CPLD in some cases. For example, the WD179X contain an edge-trigger /WE input that controls writes to internal registers. This, however, is a problem with an XC95 CPLD, because signal transitions in the /WE line (gated clock into register flip-flops) cause random glitches. My guess is that this behaviour is due to the much higher speed of the CPLD compared to the 74-series logic chips used in the original Microdisc design. The solution here is to use a single, system-wide clock (the CPU bus clock) into all flip-flop clock inputs and use the /WE line only as an enable control. Similar issues arose also in the interface between the MCU and the CPLD, and the solution was the same.

Anyway, getting back to the currently unsolved problem I mentioned above… I modified the original Microdisc ROM to create a test ROM that will hopefully help me debug the issue. It uses the original routines in the Microdisc ROM to continuously read sectors from emulated floppy into RAM and it compares them against copies stored in the ROM. This test ROM usually works fine for several sectors, but eventually, and invariably, I see the same bus glitches occurring with this setup as well. Hopefully, I’ll soon solve this issue and I’ll have a first working prototype of Cumulus in my hands.

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New Project Started: Cumulus

Posted by retromaster on September 18, 2010

I haven’t posted in a little while, mostly because I was busy working on a new project (called Cumulus). It is yet another SD/MMC floppy emulator project, but with a significant twist: It aims to emulate the WD177x/WD179x series of floppy disk controller chips (FDC), too. So, in essence, it is aimed towards certain retro-computers that originally came without built-in floppy controllers (e.g. MSX, CPC464, Oric, Spectrum, etc.). Back in the day, to add a floppy drive to these computers, the user had to install/connect a FDC card to the expansion port. Therefore, it is impossible to use a floppy emulator like TFE or UFE with these computers without the appropriate FDC expansion, which can be difficult to obtain.

There are significant advantages to integration of FDC emulation within a SD/MMC floppy emulator. First of all, there is no physical floppy disk interface (the 34-pin connector) to worry about, which means that MFM-conversion is out of the picture. Furthermore, there is no floppy disk rotation constraint to satisfy, so writes are much easier to implement and SD card performance issues pose much less of a problem.

The challenge here is that the floppy emulator needs to be directly interfaced to the host system bus, so it is difficult (if not impossible) to get away with using just a microcontroller. Consequently, a clean design dictates that the floppy emulator be host-system dependent (due to different CPU bus configurations, expansion port pinouts, glue logic, etc.). Apparently, the whole FDC card needs to be implemented within the floppy emulator.

For a first implementation (as a proof of concept), I decided to target the Oric Atmos computers… Why Oric? Well, actually, completely by chance… Right around the days when UFE was first released, I had just obtained an Oric Atmos, and a couple of people asked me if UFE could be used with an Oric, which got me thinking, and that’s actually where I got the project idea from. I found out that full schematics of the Oric Microdisc interface were available (along with dump and disassembly of the on-board ROM), and to the best of my knowledge there were no existing SD card solutions that could work with the OS software available (which is seemingly quite impressive, btw).

So, I started working on the Cumulus design. Bearing in mind all the issues outlined above, I went for a CPLD (Xilinx XC95 series) and MCU (PIC 18F series) combination for Cumulus. The CPLD will effectively implement the bus interface of the FDC chip, together with all the additional glue logic usually found on a FDC card. The MCU will communicate commands and data with the CPLD and handle SD Card access and user interface functions. I am sure it will be a difficult combination to debug, but I think I am up to the challenge :).

I have already finished the schematics and PCB layout. Right now, I am at the prototype manufacturing stage, as can be seen from the scan above. There will also be an optional UI daughterboard with an LCD. This is not absolutely required, since the Oric console can also be used effectively to control the emulator. Hopefully, the project will be successful, and it will breathe a new life into these computers.

Posted in Projects, Retrocomputing | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments »