It started on a beautiful clear fall day with a leisurely train ride through New York city, down the coastline of Connecticut and Rhode Island (see Fig. 1 and 2) to Back Bay station in Boston followed by a short walk to the convention center. The scenery was phenomenal and there are no lines at the train station. It is definitely the way to travel if you can. By the way, each Amtrak seat had a 120-V outlet for work and movie watching convenience.
I thought that this year's show was an improvement over last year. Boston ESC has never been a block buster like the west coast show, but embedded products, especially boards and modules, tend to be easier to see at the Boston show where they don't get lost in the shuffle. Software vendors that are targeting the embedded developers also get a chance to highlight their wares. Foot traffic at the show was light but steady, even on the last day of the show. Although feedback from vendors was positive regarding the attendees, it was sometimes harsh when it came to the providers of the venue.
There were a number of announcements of new products and one major announcement that took place just before the show: EPIC Express.
I met with a host of PC/104 vendors touting their new standard, EPIC Express. The fab five include Ampro, Micro/sys, Octagon Systems, VersaLogic, and WinSystems with the help of Samtec. I introduced this new technology in our September 1, 2005 issue (see ED Online 10947, 10939, and 11058). EPIC Express extends PCI Express support to the stackable PC/104 architecture (see Fig. 3). Only the architecture was announced this time, but prototype boards are around now and production units should be available by the end of the year.
The announcement is significant because it now provides embedded system designers with a long-term growth path without having to resort to a larger form factor such as VME, CompactPCI, or a PC motherboard. Peripherals like gigabit Ethernet, video capture and display, and new peripheral interfaces like ExpressCard can now be supported. It should definitely give a boost to this market space, especially for applications in medical and military environments.
More Boards And Modules
Ampro and White Electronic Designs Corp. showed off an interesting prototype design (see Fig. 4). The unit is sealed with a backlit, elastomer keyboard that includes a built-in joystick. Inside is an Ampro EPIC ReadyBoard. Now if they could just ruggedize the monitor.
Kontron was showing off PCI Express with its COM Express-compliant ETXexpress-PM module. The 95-mm by 12-mm module has a 2.13-GHz Pentium M with up to 2 Gbytes of memory. There is also Gigabit Ethernet, Serial ATA (SATA) and Parallel ATA (PATA), 8 USB 2.0 ports, 2 serial ports, I2C, dual channel LVDS, and Serial DVO interfaces. The board has an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 900, but video can also be supplied using the 16x PCI Express interface. The boards is priced around $600.
Curtiss-Wright was talking about their upcoming VITA 46 products. VITA 46 is the VME standard that uses a high-speed serial fabric like RapidIO for board-to-board communication instead of the parallel VME bus. It uses the same form factor and it's possible to mix boards in the same chassis with the proper backplane accommodations. It is a new direction for VME compared with VITA 41 that tries to merge the two approaches. The word in the wind is that VITA 46 is progressing much faster than expected.
Adlink was showing off a number of boards but the thing that caught my eye was the latest rugged GEME-4000 (General Embedded Machine Engines) and -5000 (see Fig. 5). The GEME-4000 system comes with a 600-MHz Celeron processor. The boxed system is designed for applications like motion control and embedded controls where expansion and rugged operation are requirements. Pricing starts around $1000.
InHand Electronics announced their PXA270-based Fingertip4 module. The credit-card size module is designed for battery-operated, mobile applications. It includes a host of interfaces, such as USB 2.0 with plenty of sockets and interfaces for developing custom embedded appliances. It runs Windows CE and Linux. Fingertip4 development platforms start at $2995.
Lantronix XPort AR (see Fig. 6) puts a heftier 120-MHz DSTniEX processor, more memory (1.25 Mbytes), and some impressive software into the same size package as earlier XPorts. The big difference is the software that now includes encryption support, XML support, and even RSS (real simple syndication) support. This more sophisticated platform allows for better machine-to-machine control. Support for encryption standards like SSL, AES, and MD5 makes it easier to securely place devices on the Internet. A Cisco-style command-line interface eases remote configuration.
The Micro/Sys EPC182 (see Fig. 7) is an EPIC form factor board, but it does not plug into a single board computer (SBC). Instead, the SBC is plugged into the EPC182 using the PC/104 connector. This is possible because PC/104 SBCs have a pass-through connector for the interface bus, so it doesn't matter that the peripheral is stacked under the SBC. The EPC182 has 64 high voltage-isolated inputs and 16 relays that can switch 2A each.
VersaLogic had an extended temperature version of its popular fanless Gecko SBC. The board has a 500-MHz AMD GX-500 processor with integrated 2D graphics. It has ESD (electrostatic discharge) protection on its I/O ports. There was also a lower-cost version of its EBX form factor Cobra SBC. Cobra can handle up to a 1.6-GHz Celeron M. It has dual 100BaseT Ethernet interfaces along with the usual set of EBX interfaces, including PC/104 expansion. Pricing is under $1200.
WinSystems was showing off its machine-to-machine platform, the EPX-GX. The PC/104 Plus SBC runs a 1-W AMD GX500 processor. It has an 802.11 miniPCI connector, 100BaseT Ethernet interface, 4x AGP video, 2 USB ports, 4 serial ports, 24 GPIO lines, and a number of PC-style ports. Options include a GPS receiver, 802.11 support, and 12-bit ADCs. It's priced at $499.
Rabbit Semiconductor was busy with their new Rabbit 4000 (see Fig. 8) microcontroller. Two major changes move it head and shoulders about most 8-bit micros (including the Rabbit 3000). The first is an integrated Ethernet controller. It is only 10-BaseT, but more than enough for an 8-bit device. The second is on-chip encryption acceleration. Other additions include a DMA controller and support for 8-, 16-, and 32- bit operations. Memory and I/O can now be partitioned and protected, leading the way for the next big thing? RabbitSys.
RabbitSys is Rabbit Semiconductor's new real-time operating system for the Rabbit microcontrollers. I'll be looking at it in more detail later, but for now here are a few tidbits. The OS will provide limited memory and I/O protection. It will support remote debugging and monitoring, including remote application update. Nothing stellar compared to a 32-bit microcontroller running Linux, but a pretty big jump for 8-bit micros.
Fujitsu had a number of new chips, including new additions to the 8-bit F2MC-8FX family. The more interesting item was the MB88121 FlexRay controller that supports FlexRay version 2.0. The MB88121 delivers 10 Mbit/s bandwidth. It is targeted at high-performance automotive applications such as braking and steering.
Zigbee was showing up in a number of booths. One of the majors, Chipcon, was showing off everything from soup to nuts. They have Zigbee transceivers, software, and development tools, but the highlight of the show was the CC1010 single-chip microcontroller/Zigbee RF transceiver chip. The microcontroller is an 8051 derivative with hardware DES encryption. It also has three 10-bit ADCs plus the usual digital interfaces.
STMicroelectronics had a number of new products at the show. I liked the new 20-pin ST7Lite3 with its LINSCI serial interface. It targets LIN (Local Interconnect Network) applications that tend to be in automotive, but are equally suitable for low-cost sensor and control applications. LINSCI significantly reduces the network protocol overhead allowing the processor to do more. It also has an on-chip 1-MHz oscillator and four 12-bit PWM timers suitable for handling motor-control services. Pricing starts at $1.30.
STMicroelectronics was also talking about their lab-on-chip platform that uses MEMS chip arrays for DNA analysis. It is not something that will be used in the average embedded application, but it is a rather interesting technology.
Pico Computing had a pair of tiny modules populated by a Virtex-4 FPGA. They also have a box that accepts up to 36 Pico E-12 cards and arranges them in a array for an interesting reconfigurable computing platform. Kit pricing, including software, starts at $2495.
There were plenty of software vendors at the show. I met with a number and managed to stop by a few while walking around the floor.
I-Logix was showing off their latest Rhapsody, V6.1. There are more tweaks for embedded developers, including DoDAF (Department of Defense Architecture Framework) support, support for the SysML profile, activity pins and parameters for describing algorithmic behavior, XMI import/export, and much more. The Domain Specific Modeling (DSM) feature is very interesting because it allows users to move away from strict UML presentation to more designer-friendly modeling so models can be constructed using domain-specific symbols and linkages. Anyone for drawing a model using penguins and rabbits?
Aonix had Ada and Java announcements. ObjectAda 8.2 now includes an Eclipse plug-in as well as Linux. Pricing starts at $5000. Aonix has seen a major increase in the real-time Java market. Its Perc Java virtual machine (JVM) was integrated with QNX's Eclipse-based Momentics Development Suite. Sun's recent announcement of its commercial real-time Java will only accelerate this trend.
DO-178B is important to LynuxWorks. Its LynxOS is one of a number of DO-178B platforms. Taking a step farther, LynuxWorks was showing off its LynxSecure separation kernel designed to provide a MILS (Multiple Independent Levels of Security) operating environment. LynxSecure is designed for certification to Common Criteria EAL-7 (Evaluated Assurance Level 7) as well as DO-178B level A. The demo included running multiple copies of LynuxWorks BlueCat Linux in their own partition. This type of virtualization is becoming more important in all aspects of computing, not just military applications.
Accelerated Technology's had a cute giveaway at the show (see Fig. 9). What was more interesting was Accelerated Technology's integration of its Nucleus EDGE software with the Xilinx Platform Studio. The integration does not just link the EDGE IDE and the Xilinx software. Rather, it's a combination that also includes the Nucleus RTOS. Consequently, the resulting design is composed of an entire range of files from FPGA configuration to a download image, including RTOS with debugging hooks. This greatly reduces startup time and streamlines ongoing development. Similar integration is available for Altera FGPAs, but the integration is not as polished as the Xilinx implementation. It should be only a short period of time before both offerings are equal. Pricing is $3000 per seat.
Looking for a way to seamlessly link networked embedded devices together? Quadros' RTXC Quadnet UPnP SDK might be what you need. Plug-and-play implemented properly can be very useful, hence the SDK. It's suitable for mobile devices as well. The support is comprehensive, and includes XML support, SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol) support, and so on. The SDK is priced at $35,000.
Got an ARM? If so, CMX has some libraries and operating systems for you. This includes a pair of TCP/IP stacks, three flash file systems, and a CANopen stack. CMX products target very tiny footprint applications. The repertoire is the same for other platforms that CMX already supports, like 8- and 16-bit processors, so why not try them out on a 32-bit MCU?
Real Time Innovations was showing off their NDDS (Network Data Distribution Services) and Skyboard integration. This is an interesting integration of the publish/subscribe model and SQL. It allows applications to deal with the data interaction using standard SQL queries. Published data is simply an SQL table. Another table is used to configure the system. This complements the API that NDDS provides and that is normally used by applications written in C/C++ or Java.
Somewhere In The Middle
Xilinx was out in force on the floor with a large area reserved for teaching attendees the ins and outs of FPGAs using a hands-on approach (see Fig. 10). Students got a chance to check out the PowerPC and MicroBlaze Development Kit, Vertex-4 FX12 Edition. It is definitely a self-serving course, but the ideal way to get started with FPGAs without a major prerequisite in EDA. Embedded developers looking into FPGAs to augment designs should check it out. I'll be looking at the kit in a few weeks, so you can see what the ESC attendees had a chance to use.
Macraigor Systems is now supporting the Freescale i.MX31 processor. I recently checked out the i.MX21 platform with a built-in Macraigor JTAG interface. I am looking forward to the next generation, i.MX31. The software support includes integration with the open-source gdb debugger in addition to commercial debuggers.
There was quite a bit more at Boston ESC, but that is all I have time for right now. I will also have more write-ups of products in the next few issues of Electronic Design, so check those out as well.
White Electronic Designs Corporation