Embedded developers will continue to have a growing number of choices when it comes to hardware design, as new technologies like digital paper displays such as the one from InHand Electronics become more common (Fig. 1).
The expansion continues in all directions as the number of cores and processor chips in a system grows significantly and power requirements shrink. It is also getting easier to evaluate new products using the latest development kits and to deliver products faster by basing them on increasingly sophisticated reference designs.
DEV Kits and Reference Designs
Silicon Labs’ array of ToolSticks represents the flood of low-cost, USB-based tools that have cropped up over the past few years (Fig. 2). Complete with development software and sample applications, developers can be up-and-running in an afternoon with the latest chips. Companies like Silicon Labs and Texas Instruments are opening these compact tools to a range of plug-ins that are also ideal for engineers looking to expand their education.
Reference designs continue to improve with platforms for the hottest development areas such as Freescale’s Voice over IP ( VoIP) M53281KIT, which is based on the MCF53281CVM240 microcontroller (Fig. 3). Vendors are modularizing and fine-tuning their platforms. For example, Freescale’s processor is tied to VoIP codecs, eliminating many integration and licensing issues.
On the software side, look for companies like Eridon to deliver FPGAs into the hands of embedded developers and programmers. Its UnifiedLogic system can generate a custom real-time operating system (RTOS), developments, and base software for any Xilinx-based platform including its own modular uCard design platform (Fig. 4).
Getting Smaller and Better
Motherboards for x86 PCs keep getting smaller and faster, from VIA Technologies’ tiny Nano-ITX up to SuperMicro’s X7QC3, which uses the Intel 7300 (Clarksboro) chip set to handle up to four Intel quad-core Xeon processors (Fig. 5). Modules and compact solutions like the Nano-ITX are driving down size and power use while improving functionality.
Likewise, they are using the latest interfaces, including Serial ATA. IDE drives will be harder to find. Meanwhile, board standards like VPX and Compact PCI Express are taking advantage of the latest high-speed interconnects. This year will bring a host of new offerings as new designs migrate toward the latest technologies.
Similarly, the 3U form factor is gaining ground due to its ability to pack more processing power. Of course, the VME and Compact PCI flavors are going to get some competition from the MicroTCA crew, which has finally locked down the standard. MicroTCA is based on readily available AMC (Advanced Mezzanine Card) modules like Emerson’s Kosai PM 322 (Fig. 6).
Multiprocessing and Streaming
Packing more into a single board is second nature to graphics card vendors. The AMD FireGL/FireStream 9170 and the NVidia Tesla C870 were announced last year, and developers will finally be able to take advantage of them in their designs (Fig. 7). Of course, getting stream processing applications to use hundreds of processing cores is still going to be a challenge.
The use of virtualization machine support will grow in embedded applications now that the necessary processing hardware is everywhere. Multicore programming challenges will keep getting harder as the number of cores grows and as new interconnect methodologies are introduced.
Designed to minimize programming issues, PCI Express IO virtualization will emerge this year. Just don’t expect mass migration or vast amounts of hardware. Still, the support chips will finally arrive in time to make things interesting in the server world.
Asymmetric multiprocessing will also see more traction in modules and motherboards as specialized processors move into sockets for standard processors. This includes products like XtremeData’s XD2000i, which brings a Stratix III into an Intel socket.
Migration to SATA and SAS hard drives will force designers toward new systems (see “Make Room For New Storage Devices In 2008” at www.electronicdesign. com, ED Online 17822). The rising flash memory capacity will also allow changes in embedded designs. USB-based flash solutions will be even more interesting this year.
Video will also experience growth because of peripherals like National Instruments’ NI Smart Camera (Fig. 8). Two factors are coming into play: lowcost cameras and high-performance microcontrollers.
The NI Smart Camera can run LabVIEW video applications directly. This will let developers use systems that handle the video processing for applications like robotic obstacle avoidance or object recognition without needing to program all aspects of the system.
Larger or smaller, embedded system design is getting more interesting.