Electronic Design

Digital ICs: Microprocessors & Microcontrollers

Power Savers, Serial Links Top An Active Year For MPUs, MCUs

Maturing architectures and the adoption of new technologies will mark the year for microprocessors (MPUs) and microcontrollers (MCUs). The 64-bit microprocessor market for servers is consolidating to a few processors, but the embedded market remains wide open. Symmetric and asymmetric designs will have more embedded MPUs crammed into a single chip.

One area seeing lots of activity is power, or rather its reduction. Cooling racks of processors is becoming as difficult a job as running a laptop on batteries, not to mention keeping an 8-bit MCU in micro-amps for a year. Look for everyone to push their enhancements in this arena for 2003.

On another front, serial links should make significant inroads versus parallel buses. The entire migration will take 10 years, with this marking just the start. Still, real silicon will ship in quantity early in the year. PCI Express won't make a major impact until late in the year. RapidIO will become real. Also, shipping serial link technologies like HyperTransport, InfiniBand, StarFabric, 1394, and USB will keep growing all year.

USB will pop up on more MCUs, particularly in products designed for consumers. Controller-area network (CAN) and Ethernet interfaces will be the most common additions to MCUs, especially 16- and 32-bit varieties. Many Ethernet-enabled MCUs will work with a variety of physical layers (PHYs), including power line products.

Expect even more MCU integration with operating systems and toolsets from MCU vendors. This will reduce developer startup time by providing better debugger and peripheral interface support. It also gives vendors another revenue stream and a closer relationship with software partners, resulting in better Linux support.

Beware of security. In fact, be very aware. It will be one of the hardest areas to address this year and one of the most important in the long run. So far there haven't been any major liability cases in this area, but designers shouldn't ignore reliability and cryptography support that will appear this year. Unfortunately, interface, protocol, and related standards are new or emerging, making it difficult for embedded designers to choose.

TOP TEN
>LOW-COST, LOW-POWER DSPS take on general-purpose microcontroller (MCU) attributes as prices drop to under $5. Dual-processor systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) that combine a DSP with a general purpose CPU will start to migrate from special-purpose cell-phone platforms to more generic mobile, embedded, and control platforms to meet the need for networked signal-processing applications, including voice over Internet protocol (VoIP).

>THE FABRIC STANDARDS ARE IN and fast connections are coming. HyperTransport will be big in embedded multiprocessor interconnects and in networking and telecom subsystems. RapidIO will become real this year, but its impact won't be significant until the middle or end of the year. HyperTransport and RapidIO will be fighting a duel that may eventually bumped into PCI Express Advanced Switching. PCI Express will finally start to give PCI a run for its money, but it will be late in the year before hype turns into real hardware. Don't expect much from PCI Express until then.

>THE BATTLE OF THE TITAN(IUM)S: The 64-bit server processor war heats up as AMD's Opteron and Athlon 64 gain supporters, and Intel's Itanium pushes higher speeds and larger cache sizes. Both will continue to chase Sun with its well-established cluster and management software. Opteron's HyperTransport links are poised to change the low-end multiprocessor space. Its unique HyperTransport-based NUMA (non-uniform memory access) architecture makes expandability simple.

>MULTIPLE PROCESSOR CORES offer one way to use up available transistors in SoC designs. This year, both symmetric and asymmetric multiprocessor SoCs will expand. DSP architectures will follow network processors in the art of on-chip processor arrays. Software support is starting to catch up, making designs practical even with short product turnaround times.

>DEBUGGING SUPPORT will continue to elude new standards, with JTAG being bent to fit more proprietary on-chip debugging hardware. On the plus side, on-chip debugging is now a standard feature on even 8-bit MCUs. Higher-end systems will benefit from advanced trace and multicore breakpoint hardware.

>JAVA HARDWARE IS DEAD. Long live hardware Java. Standalone Java chips still exist, especially for niche markets, but the growth area for Java hardware lies with the integrated Java accelerator or coprocessor that's now available as part of most embedded processor architectures. One primary reason for this integration is that compact Java bytecodes keep memory and power requirements low while improving execution speed. Mobile devices are just one area in which this hardware will find a home. Fixed embedded devices including routers and set-top boxes can benefit from accelerated Java execution.

>ON-CHIP CRYPTO SUPPORT will become more common this year, although more in the form of a trickle than a flood. Wireless network security and copyright concerns are pushing cryptography into mainstream hardware from portable devices to desktop PCs. It is still not clear whether consumers will want some of the PC hardware being pushed with security features if the hardware is primarily for restricting data use instead of protecting data. Expect more to use off-chip security memory devices in the near term. These memory devices often have the same pinouts as nonsecurity devices, making security retrofits easier.

>THE 32-BIT MICROCONTROLLERS will continue to push down into the 16-bit space with falling prices, lower power, and a full complement of peripherals. The register files may be wider, but rearranging on-chip flash and SRAM to be wider is a trivial exercise. Large flash and SRAM blocks will make 32-bit MCUs very desirable for more-complex embedded applications—especially network-oriented products. Look for lower-pin-count versions to gain design wins that would otherwise go to 16-bit microcontrollers.

>ROM IS NOT GOING AWAY, but one-time programming (OTP) is almost gone. Flash memory will continue as king in new designs. The variety of flash technologies will provide designers with a wide choice, from high-performance to high-reliability products. This will be especially important as flash moves into rugged environments like the automobile where long-term reliability is also a key factor. Designers will take better advantage of field reprogramming and self reprogramming features available with most flash MCUs for updates and new features.

>MICROCONTROLLERS IN GENERAL will perform well this year, with 8-bit units remaining in the lead for units shipped. Very low-power and low-voltage designs, coupled with falling prices, will lead to more multiprocessor designs using low-speed distributed connections. Keep in mind that size matters. More 8-bit MCUs will come in very small packages, opening up new product possibilities. The 16-bit MCUs will be hard pressed by the new 8-bit MCUs with more memory and speed, but the 1-bit products will have an edge when it comes to efficient C and C++ compilers for development.

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