Electronic Design

Cautiously Optimistic Exhibitors Revisit ESC In 2007

As the dust settles in the embedded sector, vendors return to the embedded systems conference.

Don't expect the same old stuff at the 2007 Embedded Systems Conference, scheduled for April 1-5 at the McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, Calif. This year's show will be virtually bursting at the seams, with many vendors setting up shop outside the main exhibit hall. Vendors seem to be cautiously optimistic, now that issues like the European Union's Restrictions on Hazardous Substances (RoHS) are being addressed and the latest standards-based technologies like Serial ATA (SATA) and PCI Express are commonplace. In fact, this optimism has triggered the return of numerous exhibitors and attracted a host of new vendors.

SOFTWARE
The latest crop of compilers, debuggers, and graphical interfaces will be on display, along with some new technologies like Wind River's Sensorpoint. This runtime instrumentation is tightly coupled with the company's Eclipse-based Workbench development environment.

Developers can add a chunk of code that gets patched into a running system. This code can monitor an application or even fix a bug. The major difference between Sensorpoint and debugging scripts is that Sensorpoint can incorporate any code into the application, and the changes can be applied without running a debugger. The development environment facilitates the migration of fixes back into the code tree.

Microsoft will have plenty of products and partners at its booth. Developers will want to look more closely at the company's lightweight .NET Micro Framework. It handles chores that would be overkill for Windows CE, Microsoft's embedded operating system, to tackle. Also, it can fit on many single-chip microcontrollers.

WIRELESS
ZigBee and 802.15.4 remain hot topics. In fact, they have their own show at ESC. The tech sessions at the ZigBee Developer's Conference complement the vendors at ESC. Most ZigBee chip and software vendors also will be at the show.

Attendees can check out products like the EmberZNet Pro protocol stack and development platforms from wireless sensor and control network manufacturer Ember (Fig. 1). EmberZNet Pro embodies the latest ZigBee standard, including profile support, and adds Ember's extensions. Its power-management and network monitoring support is impressive. Also, it can be especially invaluable in large ZigBee networks.

The low end of the spectrum offers up some interesting tidbits as well. Microchip will return to the show with its MRF24J40 transceiver. It supports ZigBee as well as Microchip's MiWi, which is based on 802.15.4 and suits applications that don't require ZigBee's complexity or licensing issues. Technologies like Wireless USB and Ultra-Wideband (UWB) will be on display, too. And don't forget about the continual stream of 802.11 products.

CHIPS, DIPs, AND FPGAs
Plenty of surprises are in store at the chip level. Arm and Actel will show off the Cortex-M1. Based on Arm's 32-bit Cortex architecture, the Cortex-M1 is specially designed for FPGA deployment. Essentially, it provides a soft-core, de facto standards-based platform.

Licensing becomes simpler because Actel M1 FPGA developers can use it without paying licensing fees or royalties, which are part of the chip cost. The Cortex-M1, which features a three-stage pipeline, runs the ARMv6-M instruction set. It supports tightly coupled memories (TCMs) for instruction and data. The architecture supports the AHB bus and CoreConsole.

Products based on tried-and-true architectures like Texas Instruments' MSP430 will be on display, along with a passel of development kits and platforms. For instance, there's the MSP430 Experimenters Board, which even has a spot to add a Chipcon module for 802.15.4 or ZigBee support (Fig. 2).

FlexRay and controller-area networks (CANs) continue to make inroads in the automotive space. Freescale's 40-MHz S08DZ60 CAN-based microcontroller incorporates up to 60 kbytes of flash; 4 kbytes of RAM; 24-channel, 16-bit analog-to-digital converters (ADCs); comparators; EEPROM; a real-time clock; and a local-interconnect-network (LIN) master controller. Its multiple clock generator reduces power consumption and can be used in most instances without a voltage regulator. Pricing starts under $3.

On the high-performance side, PCI Express continues to gain ground. PLX will exhibit its eight-port, eight-lane ExpressLane PEX 8509 and smaller five-port, five-lane PEX 8505 PCI Express switch chips, which use PLX's cut-thru design for lower latency. They also have peer-to-peer and hot-plug support while drawing less than 1.5 W in a 15- by 15-mm package. Pricing starts at $8.

Motion-sensing demonstrations will include microelectromechanical-systems (MEMS) technologies like STMicroelectronics' tiny (5- by 3- by 0.9-mm plastic package) three-axis accelerometers (Fig. 3). These LIS302 MEMS motion sensors will find uses in applications like gaming and hard-disk protection. Pricing starts at $2.95.

BOARD AND MODULES
Developers looking more to buy the parts they need rather than build will find plenty of boards, blades, and modules at the show.

VIA Technologies will display its EX line of Mini-ITX motherboards (Fig. 4). The C7 processor draws only 13.6 W. The motherboard's HDTV encoder supports 1080i displays. Unlike other motherboards, the EX models come with a DVI video output, not VGA. Gigabit Ethernet is an option, but Serial ATA ports are standard. Coax and optical SPDIF outputs are standard, too.

National Instruments' CompactRIO gets a boost with Freescale's new PowerPC-based MPC5200 processor (Fig. 5). Still, users of NI's LabView FPGA and LabView Real-Time may not notice anything but the improved performance, because LabView's model-based graphical programming system effectively hides the underlying hardware.

Attendees interested in a little more customization can check out Advanced Micro Devices' Rapid Deployment Kits (RDKs), which are a quick way to get Opterons into play. The 200 Series AdvancedTCA RDK uses a 55-W single-or dual-core Opteron processor. It has four Gigabit Ethernet ports, two for the front panel and two for the PIMG 3.0 switched-fabric backplane. Another platform, the Geode LX Network Attached Storage (NAS) RDK, uses AMD's single-chip x86 processor. The latest 1.5-W Geode LX900 will also be on display.

The highlights in this preview only scratch the surface (i.e., what vendors let me peek at ahead of time). Be sure to check out our real-time show coverage at electronicdesign.com and tune into EngineeringTV.com for reports from the show floor and what the vendors reveal at the conference.

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