Electronic Design

ESC 2008 Musings

ESC is finally over. I’m a free man! You might understand the significance if you take a look at the room (Fig. 1) where I spent most of my time meeting with vendor after vendor. For those who were not around in the 60s, the reference is from a single season TV show called The Prisoner starring Patrick McGoohan. It’s definitely worth your while renting the DVDs.

The show floor was absolutely buzzing and bustling, but things slowed down on the last day of the event. You could run a dumb robot down the middle of the isles without hitting someone at that point. Still, the overall feedback from vendors was very positive with most tire kickers having P.O.s in their pockets. That’s good because most vendors were hawking real products.

I’ll now go on a somewhat disorganized memory dump. Check out the ESC product coverage on our Web site for more details.

There were plenty of fun things at ESC including the $3995 Propeller QuadRover robot at the Parallax booth (Fig. 2). It runs on their multicore Propeller chip that just got a C compiler courtesy of ImageCraft.

One thing that was very apparent is that PCI Express is definitely making a splash in embedded designs although the uptake is still slow at the low end. PLX Technology was showing off chips like their 16-lane, 16-port PEX 8618 designed for control plane applications.

Embedding USB
Another technology that is moving into the deeply embedded space is USB. Sealevel System’s locking USB connector and Samtec’s new high retention sockets highlight the need for more robust connections in embedded systems.

Micro/Sys’ board level Stacking USB products received a number of new additions. I also saw a small PC/104 ¼-size Stacking USB module. Developers are not flocking to the standard yet because it is a relatively new approach but those that see it want more.

FPGAs Go Hard And Soft
It was the usual with the FPGA vendors like Xilinx and Altera. Faster, better, cheaper chips and improved development software. Xilinx filled in the top of its line Virtex-5 with dual PowerPC 440 cores. There were also improvements in its ISE development environment. Earlier in the year it delivered MMU support for its soft core MicroBlaze architecture. LynuxWorks was support both hard and soft cores with their operating systems.

Altera dropped off a new flash memory card for their Nios II Embedded Evaluation Kit, Cyclone III Edition (Fig. 3). I’ll have a hands-on review of this neat development kit in the near future. It is really slick. It was running on a battery pack in room six.

Altium and Avnet were both delivering new FPGA support. Altium’s Innovation Station combines Altium Designer and the Altium Desktop NanoBoard development platform. It supports a range of FPGA vendors allowing you to migrate from one platform to another. In fact, because of different FPGA characteristics such as programming speed, some designers develop on one vendor’s brand of FPGA and deploy using another.

Avnet had a low cost, $39 Xilinx Spartan-3A Evaluation Kit on display along with a more expensive and more powerful Xilinx Virtex-5 FXT FPGA Evaluation Kit. Hopefully we will get a chance to look at these platforms as well. Avnet is tying its SpeedWay Design Workshops in with a complete MicroBlaze Processor Linux Design Solution that includes a Xilinx MicroBlaze Processor Linux DVD, a MicroBlaze Processor Linux Starter Kit and the Linux for MicroBlaze Processor.

This was only the tip if the iceberg. There was a lot more FPGA hardware and software on the floor with more developers utilizing FPGAs in their designs. The improvements in the development tools are definitely having an effect on adoption.

More Micros
Intel’s Atom was on everyone’s hot list and that should actually be good news for VIA Technologies that has been operating in this space for ages. Of course, VIA had their latest hardware on display including the tiny Pico-ITX motherboard that was given away in some of the development courses. It was part of the ARTiGO package that was also bundled with Windows CE. I’ll have a hands-on look at this soon.

There was plenty of x86 at the higher end including AMD’s triple ripple (core) chip. At the lower end were products like VersaLogic’s Cougar PC/104+ SBC that uses AMD’s highly integrated LX800 chip.

There was plenty of action around ARM’s array of platforms. Atmel had a host of announcements that included its ARM9-based AT91CAP9 customizable microcontroller. It includes a board support package for TimeSys Linux.

ARM’s in general got a boost from National Instruments with its new LabView for ARM support. I’ve looked at LabView a number of times, and I can say that it is one sweet development environment. Having ARM products as a target platform definitely improves the software options for developers.

Another software platform for ARM that was out in force is Microsoft’s .NET Micro Framework. I picked up SJJ Embedded Micro Solution’s Embedded Development Kit (EDK) for the Microsoft .NET Micro Framework. It runs on a Cirrus Logic EP9302 ARM9 200-MHz processor and this is also in queue for review.

Finally, I checked out Luminary Micro’s offerings. It has continued to expand its Cortex-M3 product line. The latest includes even more USB as well as other interfaces from CAN to Ethernet. Its Stellaris EK-LM3S3748 USB Host/Device Evaluation Kit and Stellaris Serial-to-Ethernet Reference Design Kit are just a few of many kits for getting started with development using the Cortex-M3.

ARM vendors were not alone in terms of announcements. Microchip’s MIPS32-based PIC32 and 16-bit platforms gained additional USB support. The PIC24FJ256GB1 microcontroller family includes USB OTG (on-the-go) support.

The other trend in MCUs, in addition to more USB support, is touch sensors. Cypress Semiconductor’s PSoC CapSense support highlights the trend. Hopefully I’ll be able to give you more details on an improved and more integrated version of the PSoC development tools. This really looks slick for rapid prototyping.

More Modules
There was a plethora of modules from network-enabling companies such as ConnectOne, Digi, and Lantronix. ConnectOne’s new eval board (Fig. 4) combines Microchip’s PIC24 with its CO2128 iChip for secure TCP/IP connectivity to LAN and GPRS networks.

I’ll be taking a look at Digi’s Drop-In Networking solution in an EiED Online review. It’s near the top of the pile. It addresses a range of network support including ZigBee and Wi-Fi connectivity.

I was part of the judging team for Lantronix’s annual Wireless Design Contest along with Penton’s own Mark David and Lee Teschler (Machine Design). John Peterson of Menlo Park, CA took first place and “Most Likely to Succeed” awards for his VersaLights project. It actually controls an array of Microchip PIC/LED pairs via a Wi-Fi link for a fully customized system. The PICs are linked via a serial network. It used a MatchPort b/g module.

There were hundreds of modules from various vendors at the show. Some were supporting the latest ZigBee Pro standard while others delivered proprietary solutions that were often less expensive.

More Boards
As I mentioned in my ESC preview, there were two stackable PCI Express announcements at the show. One was from the Small Form Factor SIG (SFF-SIG) and the other was from the PC/104 Consortium. While some have posed this as a pair of competing standards, they tend to be more complementary. SFF-SIG’s SUMIT and Express-104 standard have x1 and x4 PCI Express support, while the PC/104 Consortium’s version handles up to x16 PCI Express. On the other hand, the SFF-SIG’s connectors include interfaces such as USB, SPI and SMBus making it more suitable for interfacing to other lower speed and lower cost peripheral devices.

Outfits like EuroTech had plenty of new boards on display especially those with Intel’s new Atom processor. EuroTech’s Catalyst Module has a Z500 series Atom processor with the US15W System Controller Hub. The module has a system-level power draw under 5 W. No fans or heat sinks needed here.

Congatec was showing off its new Qseven form factor board—yet another embedded PCI Express platform (Fig. 5). The 70-mm by 70-mm form factor board has interfaces for 4x PCI Express, 2x SATA, 6x USB 2.0, 1x 1000BaseT Ethernet, 2x SDIO 8 Bit, LVDS 2x 24 Bit, DVO/SDVO (shared), VIP (Video Input Port), HDA (High Definition Audio), I²C, and LPC.

Parallel Processing
One of the more interesting areas at ESC was parallel processing with hardware taking the limelight but software being right around the corner. Recognetics was showing off their CogniMem neural-network chip that is doing image recognition of fish. Of course, that is just one example but the chip looks very impressive. I am hoping to get my hands on one soon. The neat thing about this is expansion is similar to content addressable memory. Just stack the chips on a bus and everything continues to run in parallel.

Xmos Semiconductor had its XS1-G ready for the show (Multicore And Soft Peripherals Target Multimedia Applications). They call it software defined silicon (SDS) but it is essentially a multicore system with very efficient communication and thread scheduling. This makes software peripheral support easy although there are some heavy duty hardware peripherals on-chip as well.

Ambric had its Am2045 GT video reference platform on display. Its multicore processor array is programmed in Java using their Structural Object Programming Model (SOPM). This is another one I need to take a closer look at. It appears to scale well and that is one of the hardest things involved with parallel programming.

Parallax’s 8-core Propeller chip (Eight 32-Bit Cores Take Flight In Multiprocessor Microcontroller) got a boost with ImageCraft’s C compiler. The initial version of Parallax’s development software for the Propeller used its own assembler and Basic-like programming language. It will be interesting to see what the adoption of the Propeller will be now that a more familiar programming language is available.

Software And Looking Secure
Vendors and attendees were taking safety and security much more seriously. Maxim Integrated Products moved into the 32-bit microcontroller space. Its new RISC-based solution is compatible with their other RISC microcontrollers but it adds tamper-resistant memory support. Let the temperature or voltage fluctuate too much and the system resets the on-chip memory.

Adacore, a major Ada development vendor, announced support for VxWorks. We also discussed the safety and security markets with respect to Ada. Ada may not be the most popular language in general but it continues to be the base for safety and security related applications with Java building on may of Ada’s features.

Eclipse continues to push into new areas. Express Logic’s BenchX is based on BenchX is based the Eclipse Europa CDT Release (4.0). It handles their ThreadX operating system but the IDE is OS agnostic. It does not require any license keys streamlining installation and management. Telelogic’s Rhapsody also has native Eclipse support. It also has some very useful C to UML translation capabilities in addition to object-based design support designed for C/C++ programmers. This makes a transition into model-based design significantly easier and allows work to continue on both sides of the model-based design fence.

Two other items of note were Sun realtime Java 2.0. This is not the spec but the real platform that has been in use this year. I’ll be taking a closer look at this when the disk with the development platform and tools arrives in the lab. Realtime Java continues to make inroads and is definitely worth a look. Java is a more productive environment and as safety and security issues continue to increase in importance the use of Java makes a lot more sense.

Real-Time Innovations was showing off their updated real time Data Distribution Service (DDS). This was used on a satellite communication system with some interesting results. Everything worked during simulation but not during a short test. Testing time is expensive on satellites. Some more research, satellite time and tweaking of the system parameters kicked usage from almost nothing to over 90%. It’s amazing what a few adjustments will do as well as how effective DDS can be when it is properly configured.

This is only a fraction of what went by me and even less of what was on display at ESC. It was definitely the place to be for embedded developers. But like I said, we have a pretty good stockpile of press releases available, so more information is right at your fingertips.

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