Electronic Design

How Long Until We See The Prototype?

I like hands-on evaluations because they provide a better idea about how well developers can make use of a tool. My background in hardware and software development lets me check out major features and see how hard it is to get a real application running.

Easy setup and fast prototyping can be key to a tool's acceptance and suitability. Simple, inexpensive tools have impressed me. Parallax's SX-Key, a tool for developing embedded applications for Ubicom's SX microcontrollers, and Rabbit Semiconductor's RabbitCore development kits are two examples.

But things get a little more difficult as processor performance and storage capacity increase. Software, such as a real-time operating system (RTOS) or a Java virtual machine, comes into play and integration gets harder.

So what should a developer do? Find a solution that delivers a higher level of integration. Board vendors are very well aware of this. Board support packages are standard fare, but what happens when a board shrinks to a system-on-a-chip (SoC)? The integration follows. Board vendors tend to stick with boards that give them greater power and performance by utilizing faster processors, and even SoCs. Still, off-the-shelf boards aren't always an alternative, especially when trying to integrate an SoC into a custom design that may be very small or part of a larger solution.

Integrating an RTOS with an SoC isn't a simple project. While this process is necessary for custom SoC designs, developers can typically find integrated solutions for off-the-shelf SoCs. The advantage is fast prototyping, and development kits are normally usable by developers immediately.

Support is another key advantage for an off-the-shelf integrated solution. SoC vendors are now responsible for integration problems. If the OS doesn't work, then the finger pointing is reduced. It's never eliminated unless the vendor builds both the SoC and OS, but that's rare. An OS is normally surrounded by a large toolset, and OS vendors are well entrenched.

So if that SoC-based prototype needs to be done yesterday....

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