Electronic Design

EiED Online>> Taking A New Point Of View

Did everyone survive the New Year's Eve party? It's now time to get back to the usual grind. Although it can be hard to step away from a development project to look around, now is a good time.

Actually, I am going to skip major prognostications here as our January print issue targets the latest trends. I am going to concentrate on a couple of items that rolled across my desk in December in the software and hardware arenas. In the next issue of EiED Online I'll look at a tube of tiny Microchip PIC microprocessors with only four I/O ports. A couple of the 6-pin SOT-23 packages will fit on the end of a pencil eraser.

Software POV
First on the list is Embedded Gentoo Linux. Gentoo Linux has been called a meta-distribution designed for easy customization. It is one of the completely free Linux distributions like Debian Linux. Not surprisingly, Embedded Gentoo Linux targets embedded applications. It incorporates cross development tools and includes subprojects to address areas such as handheld devices and single-board computer support packages.

On a more PC-oriented bent, I stumbled across the SystemRescueCD site and CentOS. SystemRescueCD is a version of Linux that is downloadable as a bootable ISO CD image. The CD runs Linux but has a host of other operating system images, including an open source version of DOS and the ability to boot them. These are handy but the applications make the difference. Disk management, disk imaging, partitioning, and similar applications are the key to its success. The disk imaging applications even work over a network. The application interface and docs are a little rough around the edges but you won't mind when in a bind. The tools are versatile once you get to know them.

CentOS is the free portion of Red Hat Linux. Now for sale, Red Hat's own Linux distribution targets the enterprise these days. But for those who don't want to follow the Fedora project, Red Hat's free Linux distribution, then CentOS may be the way to go. It is essentially the latest download of Red Hat's open source that is compiled, linked, and ready to install. It's missing the custom and commercial applications that Red Hat also bundles with its commercial version.

One trace tool that I have been looking at lately is LynuxWorks SpyKer (Fig. 1). Trace tools are useful for finding bugs and tuning applications, but they require an art to use them even compared to debugging. Still, if you have not tried a trace tool to the point where it is providing useful results, then you have not hit that plateau. Keep at it.

Hardware POV
The quality of the 32-bit processor development kits continues to improve. I plan to provide a more detailed review of Freescale's M5282Lite in the future (Fig. 2). But for now I just wanted to mention that it is a really neat platform. The ColdFire architecture has matured over the years, resulting in a solid toolkit at an affordable price. Open source software has made much of this possible although Metrowerks' CodeWarrior remains one of the best choices for use with Freescale's chips.

Look for production versions of COM Express (computer on module) systems now that the spec has been approved. Although not the only one, Kontron's ETX Express is one of the first of these systems (Fig. 3). COM Express embodies the latest high-speed serial technologies like PCI Express, Gigabit Ethernet, and Serial ATA. It saves on design expertise needed for gigahertz board design and provides a standard platform for software development. It supports a large number of USB 2.0 devices as well as ExpressCard. More details on the COM Express standard can be found on the PICMG Web site.

Finally, VIA Technologies' Nano-ITX may see the light of day in production quantities (Fig. 4). This is a smaller version of the Mini-ITX-style boards used in my latest PC project, Building a Mini-ITX System (http://www.elecdesign.com/Articles/ArticleID/9327/9327.html). The Nano-ITX is even smaller, measuring only 12cm on a side. The compact system utilizes SATA and Fast Ethernet along with integrated S3 Graphics UniChrome Pro IGP graphics support that has MPEG-2 decoder and MPEG-4 acceleration. It works with VIA's PadLock Security Suite that utilizes the on-board Random Number Generators (RNGs) and PadLock Advanced Cryptography Engine (ACE).

Expect this year to be much more interesting than last year. New technologies are reaching the mass-market stage that will change the way things work. We must be aware of what is coming so that we can enjoy the fruits of the future.

Soon we'll take a hands-on look at some ZigBee development kits and more on CAN (controller area network). Till next week.

Related Links
CentOS
www.centos.org

Debian Linux
www.debian.org

Fedora Linux
fedora.redhat.com

Freescale
www.freescale.com

Embedded Gentoo
www.gentoo.org/proj/en/base/embedded/index.xml

Kontron
www.kontron.com

LynuxWorks
www.lynuxworks.com

Microchip
www.microchip.com

PICMG (PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group)
www.picmg.org

SystemRescueCD
www.sysresccd.org

VIA Technologies
www.via.com.tw
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