Electronic Design
Expect Even More Options For Embedded Designs

Expect Even More Options For Embedded Designs

Designers will have plenty of more options to choose from in the year ahead as components based on the latest standards such as SATA-III and USB 3.0 deliver the bandwidth and performance for new and improved products. The opportunities for creating these new products—whether they’re faster, greener, or cheaper—have never been better. And while the latest hardware is key, software ties things together in almost all solutions.

SOFTWARE

Android has already made a splash with smart phones like the Verizon Wireless Droid (Fig. 1). It’s definitely competition for Apple’s iPhone platform, but it runs on a wider range of platforms from a larger group of service providers. The cell-phone market is just a portion of the embedded consumer electronics market, but it’s very significant.

The iPhone and Android platforms are also the hot spots for a host of smart-phone apps as well as services that use the phones as an access point. A Java-based framework ties the myriad Android platforms together.

What will make a difference this year will be Android’s migration to non-smart-phone platforms. It may not be at the top of Google’s list, but it is rising on others. For example, Viosoft recently announced its Android Adoption Kit for MIPS-Based Digital Multimedia Designs.

In fact, designers should keep their eye on a host of platforms, including Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Standard and Windows Embedded CE plus the Atom-based Moblin Linux (see “Operating Environments Emerge As Mobile Devices Multiply”).

Operating-system (OS) action continues to grow with more buy and build projects. A growing number of designers are taking advantage of Linux in addition to other OSs. More microcontroller development tools are also now being bundled with simple OSs.

The use of virtualization in embedded applications will increase rapidly as multicore and low-cost memory make multiple OSs practical in many emerging application areas. Mixing real-time OS (RTOS) and legacy support with more advanced user interfaces or application services running on another OS will become the norm. This two-on-one scenario meets the security and isolation requirements of a wide range of applications without imposing significant overhead.

Multicore and virtualization will deliver parallel processing to a degree. However, higher-end many-core systems require more sophisticated parallel programming support. Platforms such as Nvidia’s Tesla C2070 will deliver 630 double-precision GFLOPS (Fig. 2). The S2070 supercomputer is based on four of these boards that fit in a 1U rack mount system.

Programming tools such as the Khronos Group’s OpenCL will need to be in the toolboxes of developers. Many of these platforms are new and still evolving, but developers who never used such tools will need them this year. Meanwhile, the “cloud” will take advantage of multicore, many core, and virtualization, but it’s more about collaboration than parallel programming. Still, embedded developers will need to take note as more embedded devices are networked, integrated, and managed with cloud-based apps.

SOFTWARE TOOLS


Command line interface (CLI) tools remain the backbone of most development systems. But the move to integrated development environments (IDEs) has followed students from college to industry. Eclipse has eclipsed the pack and become the rally point for enterprise as well as embedded development.

Two factors that are driving change on the embedded side include 32-bit microcontrollers and micros with larger memory spaces. This is also pushing the use of OSs even at the low end of the spectrum. IDEs for lower-end micros used to be proprietary and simpler than IDEs for their IT cousins, but this is also changing. Check out NPX’s LPCXpresso, which is based on Eclipse but designed for developers who are more comfortable with more basic, targeted IDEs (Fig. 3). The underlying power of Eclipse remains but without initially exposing the wide range of options to a new user. Watch for other vendors to follow suit.

Multicore and many-core debugging is also a reason for wider IDE adoption. A CLI debugger simply cannot present all the information that developers need in this type of environment.

MOVE TO MODULES

Modules have always been a way to get the latest processor technology into a system since this tends to be the most complex portion of the design. The increased use of high-speed serial interfaces has increased the design challenge, leading to products like the WinSystems COMIT-based EBC-Z530-G (Fig. 4).

The carrier board is a stackable SUMIT-ISM system that supports stacked PCI Express expansion boards using the SUMIT connectors and ISA adapters using the ISM connectors. The COMIT module provides the processing power and the source of the PCI Express links.

The growth in new module form factors seems to be neverending. COMIT joins existing module standards such as COM Express that also support high-speed serial interfaces. Even mobile solutions can take advantage of modules using platforms like the VIA Technologies Mobile ITX with its low-profile, 3-mm baseboard connectors (Fig. 5). The latest high-speed interfaces such as SATA-III and USB 3.0 will likely show up in some modules later in the year.

Use of USB inside the box continues to grow. USB/104 and StackableUSB are just two options in this arena (see “Playing The Board Game: Stack ’em, Pack ’em, And Rack ’em”). And of course, legacy interfaces such as the venerable PC/104 will remain a significant chunk of deliverables this year. The challenge will be merging new processors and motherboards with existing peripherals.

Other board-level products will benefit from the crop of low-power processors from Intel and AMD. Intel’s Jasper Forest Nehalem-based Xeon processor is especially interesting with its low-power multicore design. Dual-chip systems can be easily built, and non-transparent PCI Express bridging makes redundancy simpler to design.

VME systems did well in the military and aerospace market last year, and things look to improve this year. 3U VPX and Compact-PCI Express will be hot areas. They allow more compact designs, which are critical in platforms from unmanned drones to medical equipment. They also can take advantage of the latest advances in storage using boards like the rugged 3U VPX3-FSM Flash Storage Module from Curtiss Wright Controls Embedded Computing (Fig. 6). The board has NIST-certified 256-bit AES data encryption and can transfer data at 160 Mbytes/s in a RAID0 configuration.

STORAGE STATUS

Flash storage will be everywhere, not just on VPX boards. It has radically changed how and where storage can be used, replacing tape and hard drives on camcorders as well as providing more rugged storage in applications such as autonomous underwater unmanned vehicles (UUVs).

Expect more novel combinations like EyeFi’s wireless/flash combination (Fig. 7). Packing a micro, flash, and Wi-Fi chip into an SD flash form factor is a great idea that EyeFi is targeting at consumers. It also has the potential to be a significant embedded Wi-Fi facilitator, especially for existing designs.

The popularity of flash on netbooks took many by surprise. They still demand a premium price, especially as demand for flash increases in other areas such as enterprise applications. Here, solid-state disk (SSD) drives act as caches for SAS or SATA arrays in high-demand applications such as streaming multimedia.

Challenges remain with the higher-density, lower-cost multilevel-cell (MLC) flash versus single-level cell (SLC). Managing MLC’s lower write lifetime versus SLC will require support chips like SandForce’s SF-1500 SSD controller (see “Thanks For The Memory”).

The SAS and SATA market on the enterprise side will be in the 2.5-in. form factor. Factors such as high reliability, low power requirements, and 6-Gbit/s transfer rates make these formats ideal for redundant array of independent disks (RAID) and just a bunch of disks (JBOD) systems. These aren’t the same disks found in laptops, though they share the same form factor.

For laptops, the 2.5-in. form factor remains the most popular, with 1.8-in. drives found in netbooks and other compact environments. Yet growing capacities in flash drives will put pressure on the 1.8-in. form factor.

The challenge for embedded developers is the disappearing PATA interface. This isn’t really an issue for server and PC-based systems that moved to SATA and SAS a couple years ago. It also tends to be less of an issue for newer systems that are equipped with SATA interfaces, but designers supporting legacy systems may need to consider alternatives. In these instances, flash may be a solution with many PATA options available.

Micro developers will likely turn to direct flash chip access or removable storage via MMC/SD or USB interfaces. Another standard that was around last year, the Small Form Factor Special Interest Group’s (SFF-SIG’s) MiniBlade, was already starting to show up on some motherboards (see “USB Thinks Inside The Box”). Expect to see it on more this year.

DISPLAYS


Plasma and DLP projectors remain options for HDTVs, but LCD is where the action is. LED backlit LCDs are the rage on the consumer side, and their brighter, higher performance will benefit most embedded applications as well.

Widescreen displays are now the norm for PCs with 720p and 1080p resolution in the mix. This is already reflective of digital signage offerings with new platforms breaking the 60-in. barrier. Look for Atom and RISC-based media players to have a growing impact on driving these displays.

This may be the year that 3D displays actually do something. Active shutter glass technology has been around for decades, and it has even shipped on many HDTVs. But content remains the stumbling block. Games have been the driving factor thus far, though that market is a fraction of the general display market.

3D does offer significant advantages for some applications such as CAD. One of the big factors in 3D adoption is the matching display and processing power necessary to handle it in real time. That hardware is now readily available. Arrays of GPUs and other multicore solutions can be put to good use.

Auto-stereoscopic displays could make things interesting. 3M and Toshiba Matsushita Display have shown handheld, 3D, auto-stereoscopic LCDs that may find their way into products such as cell phones, mobile Internet devices, and other commercial products this year (see “3M Film For Viewing 3D Films”).

LCDs are another major option for embedded systems. Barnes & Noble’s nook e-book reader combines LCDs with E-Ink’s electronic-paper displays (EPDs) or ePaper (Fig. 8). The nook lets users peruse a library of books using the smaller color LCD touchscreen. LCDs can deliver color and video, while the latest ePaper displays have a cycle time of a fraction of second. Their low power and high contrast give them the edge in this particular market.

But there are challengers on the horizon. Qualcomm’s Mirasol display technology has the same low-power, bistable features but with color support and a refresh rate that supports video (see “E-paper Makes E-books Exciting”). And Qualcomm is not alone. Nemoptic also has its BiNem bistable LCD technology.

The International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) will host an array of compact, low-power, LED projectors like Caliber Develop’s tiny USB-based model (Fig. 9). The low power and compact nature of these devices will enable designers to implement interesting applications this year.

USB has turned into a viable display interface alternative to VGA and DVI. Unfortunately, it tends to be a vendor-specific class implementation. A standard USB display class would be useful. In the meantime, VGA connections remain. But the move through DVI to HDMI continues.

This year will likely make or break DisplayPort, VESA’s follow-up to DVI. DisplayPort has been around for a while, though critical mass requires displays as well as sources. Both are now here, so designers can take advantage of DisplayPort’s performance. It will not take on HDMI in the consumer space, but it will play a part when connecting to monitors.

Another emerging standard is DiiVA (Digital Interactive Interface for Video & Video), also known as “Chinese HDMI.” One of DiiVA’s features is the ability to tunnel other transports such as USB and Ethernet.

A plethora of old and new options in hardware and software will be available to designers in 2010. Figuring out which to use in a design has never been harder.

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