Electronic Design

Embedded Hardware Percolates On All Fronts

Getting to market quickly is a major determinant in the build-versus-buy choice. Thanks to a host of new processor options, the choice is clear: system creation through the use of boards and modules. Most existing modules and board standards such as EPIC, PC/104, VME, and CompactPCI continue to shine. The installed base is the main reason, but they also meet the needs of designers for a range of applications. Their lower cost will remain an advantage for a number of years to come. And they retain their respective parallel bus, plus they include high-speed serial interfaces like USB and SATA.

Newly established standards such as Advanced TCA (ATCA) and MicroTCA, VPX, and PCI Express are growing in popularity because they deliver higher performance than their older counterparts. The serializer-deserializer (SERDES) consistency among the high-speed serial interfaces used on most of these platforms means designers can select from Ethernet, InfiniBand, Serial RapidIO, and PCI Express while using the same connector system.

The second generation of serial interface standards will be the mainstay for a while, even as the latest 3.0 standards come out. Backward-compatibility will make the transition to prior 1.x standards almost a trivial exercise. Also, building and maintaining mixed systems steadily will become easier.

The push to 3U will get stronger as the performance of smaller form-factor boards rises, ultimately eclipsing what was available on larger form factors only a year or two ago. MicroTCA and similar small form factors are becoming more desirable deployment targets that also tend to be less power-hungry. Still, they don’t sacrifice performance. Mercury Computer Systems’ Ensemble MXI-205 Xilinx V5 FPGA AMC Module slips nicely into a MicroTCA box or an ATCA carrier board (Fig. 1).

Small stackable modules with high-speed serial support should finally show up in quantity, including standards such as StackableUSB and PCI-104 Express. One of VIA Technologies’ new Pico-ITX single-board computers (SBCs) uses a Small Form Factor SIG SUMIT Samtec connector to handle modules like those from WinSystems (Fig. 2).

This year, we will see whether these new standards garner sufficient support to increase their market share. It will also be interesting to watch whether or not the PC/104 market takes to the new standards needed to support the newer processor and support chips.

Furthermore, USB inside the box is growing, but it may be slowed by the lack of a standard above the basic USB profile, which is often a serial port interface. While the USB device drivers are common, accessing the USB devices such as digital-to-analog converters (DACs) or parallel ports is custom for each board.

KEEPING IT COOL • The power envelope is being pushed in several areas. For instance, power efficiency, space, and cooling are just a few things on the table. Low-power modules will continue to extend battery life, while mid-range products like Intel’s Atom and offerings from AMD and VIA Technologies will be expanding the coverage of the x86 architecture in the mobile space. And of course there’s always more of this to come.

The more profound changes will occur in the server space, where power envelopes are fixed but performance is critical. Multicore x86-based solutions are pushing into space once reserved by the power-efficient PowerPC platforms. Finer control of each core and even the ability to boost the performance of individual cores (as found in Intel’s “Nehalam” architecture) allow more power efficiency.

Still, pushing the envelope is the object of the game. Liquid cooling is still at the forefront of overclocked PC gaming machines. Liquid and spray cooling are also finding use in environments like mobile military applications.

STORAGE CHANGES • The transition to 2.5-in. hard drives and flash memory will bring significant changes to the industry by streamlining board and module designs. These smaller, more rugged solutions allow storage to be placed on the same board as the processor, which results in an overall reduction in system size and power requirements. The move to 2.5-in. drives on the server side enables significantly more drives to be incorporated into a redundant array of independent discs (RAID).

But on the other hand, it often leaves sizeable airspace in rack-mount designs. The smaller size comes in handy for SBC architectures—more drives will allow for RAID 5 configurations where RAID 1 was the norm.

All types of storage can now easily fit onto PC mezzanine cards (PMCs). Solid-state PMCs like the Flash PMCStor board from Act/Technico permits storage to be mated with a variety of SBC form factors—anything from VME to CompactPCI (Fig. 3).

Flash-memory drives will be the key factor in modules and even larger board form factors as capacity continues its rise. Embedded designers will benefit from the demand on the consumer side, often allowing flash to replace hard drives. The ruggedness of flash is a definite plus, as is its lower power consumption. Embedded USB flash memory is becoming more important as designers use USB microcontrollers for more than USB host connectivity.

DEV KITS & REFERENCE DESIGNS • Low-cost development kits continue to improve, making them real bargains, but things will get even better down the road as things progress further. Development platforms coming down the pike are designed to get prototypes out the door quicker. Some even incorporate touchpanels or cases.

The trend of adding more technology in a single dev kit is rearing its head at both ends of the spectrum. Cypress Semiconductor’s PSoC First- Touch Starter Kit with CyFi Low-Power RF combines the PSoC microcontroller with capacitive touch sensor support with a RF transceiver (Fig. 4). The microcontroller can also handle proximity, light, and temperature sensing.

Design platforms are becoming more modular and standard, at least within a vendor’s offerings. This is especially true for processor vendors with product lines spanning the 8-, 16-, and 32-bit architectures.

Reference designs also deserve their due, as they have been invaluable. But their demand is growing as popular applications like network access storage (NAS) systems force designers into shorter delivery schedules. Overall, boards, modules, and reference designs let developers turn out systems faster and more efficiently than ever.

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