Golden Goose in Software Defined Radio


So many hams want to kill the Golden Goose in Software Defined Radio, that it isn’t funny.

First let’s start with a bit of history. The ham radio SDR community was largely a small cluster of informal teams with hardware and software developments, both open source and proprietary.

Then things changed.  One manufacturer, FlexRadio Systems, got a good toehold on production grade radios with the Flex-5000/3000/1500 series. That success was in part led by FRS sponsoring much of the software development, largely to the mostly open source PowerSDR package.

When other groups introduced their own PowerSDR-ready radios, they initially built off of open sourced projects and unarguably from FRS financed software developments.

Stop to think about this – a SDR (Software Defined Radio) is Mainly Software and the hardware exists only to provide a platform for the SDR Software to run.

At this juncture a group of PowerSDR type radio hardware platforms were being marketed, with the effect of diluting further investment into the PowerSDR type package by the lost beneficial gain to the other hardware manufacturers.

In perspective we must recognize very few of the amateur radio SDR developments were unique at all, as the Amateur Radio SDR largely was little more than cost effective ways of leveraging existing technologies within the cost point of an amateur’s pocketbook and support capabilities.  Largely Amateur Radio SDR is commercial/military/satellite technologies brought down to the amateur’s budget.

It didn’t take long for FRS recognize where the Golden Goose was, and to move from the Thick-Pipe PowerSDR architecture to the Thin-Pipe (Client/Server) structure.  They launched their Signature Series and changed the software architecture to put everything the radio needs to operate in the physical radio server, moving away from PowerSDR to SmartSDR.  FRS has built a very good business with the new architecture and licensing income model. (Major upgrades are paid for events.)

Some SDR manufactures have continued with the largely open source PowerSDR, in some cases even moving the software towards a Client/Server architecture.  It is a testament to the robustness of PowerSDR that years after FRS replace it for PowerSDR to continue to provide the backbone & support for part of the market.  Is the Golden Goose for PowerSDR -based SDRs not only borrowed, but on borrowed time?

Other SDR manufacturers did their own software, in whole or part, and some configurations include the physical radio hosting a PC-equivalent computer onboard.  Whether the onboard systems will meet the test of time is a question.  Past SDRs that become computer-bound have mostly become obsolete or stagnated.   Dedicated code amateur radio products can face succession issues, where the team stops working to maintain/develop software.  How robust is the Golden Goose when a product is limited volume and economic return and the developers age & retire?

I am certain a reader can see risks to the Golden Goose in all three models – SmartSDR Client/Server, Built on PowerSDR legacy, and Proprietary Software with Embedded Computer on board.

Truth is a interconnect shack by definition has more exposure to disruptors, which can include suddenly dead software required to integrate.

Second truth is that many of the radios we consider “software free” have a software load that if disrupted the radio dies.  Legacy radios benefit in that their software operates in unconnected isolation minimizing disruptions.  But when the main EPROM in a legacy radio dies, it is done being a radio.  Some lose their programing through aging or use, hence why I have fresh backup chips for some of my radios just in case.

So you are not going to escape the software issue with a legacy radio.

Only in a discrete circuit (non-integrated circuit) radio – a radio who’s circuits are composed of discrete components which are manufactured separately – based radio can you escape the issue of software.

Of course a discrete circuit radio’s feature set will be a fraction of the feature set available with SDR technology, especially if price-point-parity is observed.

So back to that Golden Goose. Yes a Software Defined Radio has the potential to deliver high value in terms of specifications and features at a significantly better price point. That is the “Golden” part. Large amounts of features at a lesser amount of cost.

Reflecting that Software is where the real value lay, how do our three models – SmartSDR Client/Server, Built on PowerSDR legacy, and Proprietary Software with Embedded Computer on board – stack up?

In reverse order:

Proprietary Software with Embedded Computer on board – is vulnerable to when the developer moves along. Orphaned it may be unsupportable. While we imagine the developer would hold most of the cards for playing out the future of such a device, it is still running on hardware/software (OS & middle-ware levels) provided by others. Those who promote allowing additional user software to be loaded into the embedded computer pick up a whole additional category of risks. My take is these are more risky to keep going over the 5-10-15 year timeframe than other SDR options.

Built on PowerSDR legacy – is robust and with some development to mitigate the Thick-Pipe issues of PowerSDR, fairly resilient. Note the really innovative efforts are occurring both within the open software and in the proprietary software extension worlds. The highest performing leans hard on proprietary enhancements, much like eth SmartSDR software world. In these enhanced with proprietary additions area I am lumping them with the Proprietary Software with Embedded Computer on board set of risks. With those who keep to the open software and specifications I think they will survive much longer, whether it is the transition to Windows 16 or MacOS 14.10 or something new, provide the core functions can be ported someone will make these radios work. Now if the Firewire disappears and USB moved on to an incompatible say USB20.0-optical it may become difficult, but my predictions is that they will survive.

SmartSDR Client/Server – is fairly robust, with the radio-server part potentially being able to operate for a very long time even if much of the computer world passes it by. For the End-Client GUI side, not so much, but with a published API – which basically moves the API into the open source world – the potential to develop working End-Client GUIs would remain. That robustness is pretty evident when you consider my first Flex-6700 was delivered June 2013 – seven year ago! – and I was running a Windows-XP Service Pack 2 system. The Flex-5000 I had was replaced in five years with the new series in 2013. Currently I am running that same Flex-6700 remotely using a Windows 10 Pro system at the End-Client GUI end and computer-less at the shack end. While upgrade offerings could happen, I do not think my radios have gotten to the midpoint in their lives in my radio shack. I should point out this 6700 has run 24-7 ever since working it remotely happened around 2015 (I was remoting well before official solutions were offered). My current guess is this radio has be on for 50,000 hours or more.

What makes the SmartSDR Client/Server so robust? The Golden Goose (or if you prefer the Goose that lays the Golden Eggs) is protected where it must be for marketplace survival (the Radio-Server part) and exposed where is needs to me (the End-Client GUI part).

And despite the clamor from some hams to expose the Radio-Server part for anyone to tinker with, FRS has remained on course protecting their investment.




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