Electronic Design

Better Tools, More Options Mean Embedded For The Masses

Embedded development keeps pushing the proverbial envelope. Performance is up. Power requirements are down. Only the pace of software improvement seems slower than most engineers' expectations, though the dependence on C remains even with the plethora of options.

Kits and Reference Designs
Development kits and reference designs continue to improve. They used to belong to the realm of expensive platforms for the select few. Now, there are multitudes of low-cost, high-functionality kits accompanying just about every product release (Fig. 1).

Developers are demanding tools that will let them easily evaluate new hardware and software combinations and quickly turn them into products. More development boards are coming with cases that allow them to be utilized as demonstration prototypes.

Open-source software and demo versions with more functionality are making it easier to evaluate a product's range of capabilities. Common platforms like the Eclipse integrated development environment (IDE), which many embedded developers already use, help cut down the learning curve.

Development Software
Software remains the key to success. But significant challenges lie ahead, especially in multicore programming. Incorporating time into applications is more difficult with languages like C. Yet runtime systems like Intel's recently open-sourced Task Building Blocks assist in filling the emerging void.

Visual programming tools continue to grow with more general adoption, especially in process control and robotics. C/C++ developers are 'discovering' established environments like National Instruments' LabVIEW as well as those based on UML.

New Peripheral Hardware
Peripherals rarely just appear. But many existing categories, like capacitive touch sensing, are becoming more common. Rugged and reliable solutions can provide a more dynamic interface now that it's easier and cheaper to incorporate these touch interfaces.

Video cameras are also making the jump from cell phones and PCs to embedded applications. Vision recognition software and low-cost, high-performance microcontrollers are simplifying the implementation of surveillance and robotic control for the average developer.

More Storage
More is always better, as long as the price and power requirements continue to drop. That will continue to be the case. At the high end, Hitachi's 7K1000 broke the terabyte barrier for 3.5-in. drives, so expect continued improvements in magnetic storage (Fig. 2).

Designers will finally get a crack at Blu-ray and HD DVD drive capacity for applications other than consumer devices. Meanwhile, the increased availability of high-capacity flash will have a major impact on embedded designs that once required magnetic storage. Though the price remains high, we're seeing it steadily decline, even as capacities increase.

Boards and Interconnects
High-speed serial interfaces are now the norm, but look for advances in areas like PCI Express I/O virtualization. There will be a lot of activity in the 3U space as well as the final emergence of MicroTCA. Mezzanine cards like Curtis-Wright Controls Embedded Computing's XMC-442 will also take advantage of interfaces like PCI Express and Serial RapidIO (SRIO) (Fig. 3).

Still, legacy bus systems like VME and the ISA-based PC/104 boards will make up the bulk of shipments even as the newer standards like VPX continue to garner new design wins. Don't count them out as vendors continue to improve the price and performance of these technologies.

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