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A survey of IEEE-488 Bus Standard

Maria Mehmood, Shehryar Humayun, and Faran Mahmood
Abstract The General Purpose Interface Bus (GPIB) or originally, Hewlett-Packard Interface bus (HP-IB) was developed in late 1960s as a reliable communication bus for automated test equipment. This document presents a comprehensive literature survey of GPIB bus standard (IEEE standard 488) gathered from many published and unpublished documents. The operational and functional mechanism of data and commands transfer between two or more GPIB compatible devices is described. Based on the general operation of the bus standard, the pros and cons of using GPIB in different instruments, and its application to enhance system performance are discussed. The survey concludes by highlighting the use and prominence of this standard in todays industry. Index TermsArchitecture, Buses, Data Communication, Network Protocols

One of the primary aims of a system is to ensure easy and smooth communication among all its subsystems. This goal cannot be attained without the use of a proper and efficient interface between the subsystems. This is when instruments like GPIB come into play. GPIB, short for General Purpose Interface Bus, was developed by Hewlett Packard and was later acknowledged as a standard by IEEE. The IEEE-488.1 standard outlines the whole working and methodology for electrical and mechanical aspects of the bus .The GPIB interface is a means of parallel communication between the devices of a system. With the growing need of automation and instrument control systems, GPIB has now become one of the leading interfaces in control systems.

Most of the communication systems are aimed at real time data acquisition and conversion to other formats; however, some of them are also designed to provide control and automation. These requirements have motivated the development of the GPIB card and, hence it is fully equipped to suit this purpose. Although the GPIB is like an ordinary computer bus there is one major difference: GPIB does not have a backplane rather it has stand-alone devices. GPIB devices act either as a listener, talker, controller or a combination of them. A listener is usually an instrument which accepts messages from a talker, after the GPIB controller provides the necessary addressing. The talker generates messages which are appropriately addressed by the controller towards the listener. There is only one talker at a time, but there can be as many as 14 listeners receiving the commands. The main GPIB card usually acts as a controller while instruments such as digital analyzers and multi-meters may act as talkers as well as listeners. Although the three above mentioned components comprise the basis of a GPIB system, it can connect up to maximum 15 devices at a time with only one device acting as controller-in-charge (CIC). The GPIB controller has a total of 24 lines working at TTL active low voltage levels. These lines consist of: 16 signal lines 8ground lines.

With the advent of computers in 60s, a lot of electronic instrument manufacturers started developing programmable instruments. Therefore, a need arose to have an interface for these instruments with a standardized bus compatible with all products. HP, being a pioneer in this field, developed HP-IB (Hewlett-Packard Interface Bus), which after a number of modifications and improvements, is now known as GPIB. The initial standard recognized by IEEE was 488 (or 488.1) with no specific syntax. Later IEEE-488.2 was developed which sits on the previous standard instead of replacing it. Despite its long established and ancient history the bus is still very popular in modern systems.

Maria Mehmood is with Department of Electrical Engineering, Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan. Shehryar Humayun is with the Department of Electrical Engineering, Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan. Faran Mahmood is with Electrical Engineering Department, Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan.



2. 3. 4. 5.

ATN (attention): While sending commands, controller turns ATNs status as true. Status is changed to false while sending messages. SRQ (service request): Any instrument can use this line to call service from the controller. REN (remote enable): Mode (local or remote) is changed by switching this line. It is controlled by the System Controller. EOI (end or identify):EOI has two main functions: The Controller utilizes this line to inform all instruments that they should employ parallel polling for responses. The Talker indicate end of message string through this line.

Fig. 1 Lines of GPIB

The 16 signal lines are further divided into 8 bidirectional data lines 3 handshake lines 5 interface management lines.

The signals communicated along these lines are primarily of two types. One is instrument reliant and the other is command-based. Instrument-reliant messages hold instrument specific information, also called data messages. While command-based messages or simply commands carry out tasks such as initialization of GPIB controller, addressing the instrument etc.

3.1 Data Lines

The data lines can carry both messages and commands. The voltage level (on/off) of the ATN lines regulates whether the signal on data line is a message or command. Although there are 8 data lines, data is usually sent in 7 bit ASCII or OSI code and the last bit is used for parity.

3.2 Handshake Line

The transfer of messages is controlled by three lines according to the procedure of 3 wire interlocked handshake. The first line is called NRFD (not ready for data) .This specifies when a listener is prepared to accept data. Different agents control the line in different situations. It is driven by: 1. All instruments while receiving commands. 2. All listeners while receiving data messages. 3. By talker while activating HS488 protocol. The second line is known as NDAC (not data accepted) used for showing acceptance or rejection of a message byte. It is used by: 1. Instruments while accepting commands 2. Listeners while receiving messages The third line is called DAV (data valid). DAV line indicates whether the signal level is stable enough to transfer data. It is driven by: 1. Controller while sending commands 2. Talker while transferring data

Fig. 2 Interaction among devices

Initially consider that listener is having NRFD (Not Ready for Data) line as high. When the listener will push NRFD low, it will propagate to talker, showing listener is ready for data. The talker then pushes DAV signal high, showing data is available. The data then transfers to listener, after acceptance it pushes NDAC (Not Data Accepted) low. This NDAC signal is then transmitted to talker, showing data has been accepted. The cycle continues. TABLE 1 The Handshake Steps Step No: 1. 2. 3. Listener NRFD NDAC Talker DAV Signal Value Low High Low

3.3 Interface Management Lines

The interface management lines are employed to direct the course of signals across the GPIB interface. 1. IFC (interface clear): This line is used by the controller for two purposes: Bus initialization and for setting the controller in charge.



To program a GPIB card, one must be familiar with the exact type of messages being passed among the devices on a GPIB system. Basically there are four types of communication signals:

5.1 Events
To exchange basic information in a simple and speedy manner, GPIB has some control lines. Since this information is processed by the interface hardware it is sometimes referred to as Interface Events.

5.2 Commands
Strings that cause the instrument to perform a certain action e.g. acquire data or rotate the motor, are called commands.

of data transfer. The key improvement was the specification of control sequences and protocols. Secondly, the new standard introduced some changes to the instruments. The instrument specifications defined in IEEE-488.2 requires some major changes in firmware and hardware. On the other hand, the gain is that the programming is easy because they are not only sensitive to general commands but they also respond to the defined exchange protocols. MES (Message Exchange Standard) is the groundwork for the SCPI commands. As a result the problems caused by varying data formats, discrepancy in command structure and incompatibility among instruments were resolved. Therefore it reduced development time and cost.

SCPI Commands

5.3 Queries:
As opposed to commands queries are strings that cause the generation of a response. They always end with a question mark (?).

5.4 Data units:

All information, whether it is the parameter with command/query to instrument or response form instrument, is passed in form of data units. Programming a GPIB card is like programming a microcontroller or handling other common interfaces like I2C. The programmer must be familiar with the pin configuration and to some extent the internal working of the GPIB circuitry. GPIB card can be easily programmed using VB or C-languages. However, the most efficient method would be to use software that comes with GPIB libraries. One such example is LabView by National Instruments which can be used with the GPIB card manufactured by National Instruments. The advantage is that they are both by the same manufacturer and therefore compatible.


To encourage the growth and enhance the development of 488 standards, a new standard IEEE 488.2 was drafted around 1987.It is not a revision of the .1 standard but rather an extension of its functionality. This was a great boost since it addressed to all the problems encountered by the previous standard users. Firstly, this new standard had an impact on the controller. To increase the reliability and competency of IEEE-488.2 based systems, the IEEE 488.2 standard completely defines how a controller and talker should behave so that all possible loopholes are covered. It was noted that most of the problems arose when different components in a system are not compatible with each other or the exact functionality of some interface is not defined. To overcome this problem, the 488.2 standard outlined some requirements such that it made an IEEE 488.2 controller a necessity in a system. It completely defined its working and requirement as well as the method

In 1990, several manufactures formed a consortium for Standard Commands for Programmable Instruments or widely known as SCPI specification. The main aim was to develop and describe a set of standardized commands for programming instruments. The need arose because before SCPI different firms used their own commands for programming. This created a problem for test engineers as they had to learn special commands for every instrument they tested. SCPI thus defined a complete standardized set of commands to be used with any programming instrument. This was very beneficial to programmers who were on a limited time schedule because a common set of commands reduced the development time. By using message exchange protocol defined by IEEE, it allows both long and short format types of commands to be used. So it is very compatible. This also enabled the development of test programs that could be used with a wide variety of instruments. SCPI structure does not define any physical communication layer. So along with GPIB, it can also be used with serial, USB etc. Therefore, a test program, originally made for GPIB supporting device, may be also be used with a device with serial link. SCPI commands are greatly appreciated due to the fact that they provide almost all the key functions required. Moreover it is also extendible since it is a hierarchal command structure. This means a function at top level can be divided onto specific commands without creating any problem.


Parallel communication between devices can be achieved through several interfaces. The choice of a certain interface to handle communication depends on many factors e.g. speed required, budget, reliability etc. However, there are certain advantages that make the use of IEEE 488 standard preferable to others. The hardware interface is very simple. All that is needed is a GPIB card and its cable. Thus the whole affair is not messy and unreliable because there is little concern of loose wires etc.

2011 Journal of Computing Press, NY, USA, ISSN 2151-9617



Most of the systems require a controller which can be attached to several devices to allow a hierarchal structure. GPIB offers the ease of connecting multiple devices to a single host. Thus there is no need for convertors and extra circuitry to allow a multiple-device connection. The dissimilarity of speed among devices causes traffic to clog up in the system and thus results in loss of information. This means that if you attach a fast talker to a slow listener, the receipt of signal will be much slower than the generation of signal and the surplus will remain in the channel and clog it up. Similarly if a slow talker is attached to a fast listener, there is wastage of resources. Therefore most of the systems face problems when mixing slow and fast devices. This is not the case with GPIB since GPIB allows collaboration of slow and fast devices. Another, very basic advantage of GPIB is that it has a well-established history and many successive revisions and advancements have matured it into a very developed method of interfacing. It is therefore widely supported. This means that using GPIB in your systems will provide you with a lot of material for literature survey and many examples and help material to aid in your progress. Usually GPIB is desirable for small amount of data transfer due to its functioning mechanism. As an ending note, it might be worth mentioning that in terms of ease of use, GPIB is much preferred interface over USB and fire wire. This is because it has sharp connectors, held in place by screws, which means that it is not easy for the cables to be accidentally removed.

tency is a requirement in communication, GPIB will not cease to exist. Developers like NI are continuously offering new features with GPIB e.g. USB, cable PCI, so that it is becoming
Bus Multidevice Hardware Ruggedness Maximum Length Setup Speed




Internal PC bus


133 Mbps




Internal PC bus


8 Gbps

USB Ethernet GPIB

Good Good Best

Good Good Best

5m 85 to 100 m 20 m

Best Good

12 Mbps

480Mbps Better 8 Mbps

compatible with more and more systems. Thus in the future many systems might shift to GPIB considering its compatibility advantage. GPIB is a very reliable and simple protocol to connect multiple interfaces with a host. As depicted in table.1 there are various aspects that make it preferable over other communication interfaces.To conclude: with a strong history, numerous advantages and increasing developments, GPIB is not soon to be obsolete.

The authors wish to thank the Head of Department Electrical Engineerin, IST, Dr. Qamar Ul Islam and Assistant Professor Brig. Tariq Mehmood for their support.


Flipping the coin to see the other side, iIt is quite natural that GPIB has some disadvantages which make it undesirable in some communication systems. The system is not portable since the connectors and cables are immense and difficult to move and handle freely. So if a system is not fixed physically or there is a requirement of moving it around, it is best to go for some small and portable interface. Speedy systems might not be satisfied with using the GPIB protocol since the speed limit for this bus is around 1.8 MBps. This speed might not suffice for certain application. Moreover, the prevention of direct flow of current between bus and system via galvanic isolation is not compulsory. Therefore some users might neglect it which may cause problems in the system.

[1] "History of GPIB" at National , Retrieved 05-07-2011. Instruments,

[2] Alex McCarthy, GPIB Offers Advantages in Low-Latency, GPIB Product Manager, National Instruments, [3] Leonard Sokoloff, Devry College of Technology, GPIB Instrument Control, Proceedings of the 2002 ASEE Annual Conference. [4] Andy Toth, VXI, PXI, or GPIB: Which to use?,Keithley Instruments, Inc. [5] Users Guide, GPIB Hardware Manual For Use With PCI-GPIB, ISA-GPIB, Omega Inc. Retrieved: 09-07-2011, [6] GPIB Instrument Control Tutorial, Developer Zone, National Instruments. Publish date: 06-07-2006. [7] Trujillo, Vanessa. "Guide to instrument and control buses., Plant Engineering, June 2001 Issue. [8]ICASE-2011, Assessment, Analysis and Implementation of the IEEE 488 Bus standard by Maria Mehmood, Shehryar Humayun.

TABLE 2 A comparison of Communication Interfaces 10 CONCLUSION

Nowadays, almost all equipment comes with many different interface ports so the task of deciding which bus will result in optimal performance depends largely on the objective of the system .To indicate the performance of a system theoretically bandwidth and latency are sufficient parameters. GPIB offers an advantage in low latency networks because its delay factor is only 30s. So, as long as low la-

Maria Mehmood: Maria Mehmood is currently final year student at Institute of Space Technology, Islamabad, Pakistan. She is doing engineering with a major in Communication systems.

Shehryar Humayun: Shehryar Humayun is in the final year of Communication Systems engineering at Institute of Space Technology, Pakistan. Research interests include networking and real time systems.