Electronic Design

Bored With Boards? Not This Year

Embedded designs often center around boards and modules. Expect both to be big this year. With time-to-market pressures reaching frenzied levels, buying a board or module can cut down development time.

High-speed serial interfaces and fabrics drive new standards like MicroTCA and EPIC Express. Likewise, devices from hard disks to keyboards now use serial interfaces such as SATA-II and USB 2.0.

This will be a transition year, with the availability of boards and modules built exclusively for the newer interfaces. Parallel-bus products will continue to survive, representing a significant portion of new products for the next few years (see "Whither The Parallel Bus?" p. 106).

Watch for two other key trends, too. First, small modules will be strong this year. Second, there's a major shift under way in the storage area, as flash memory goes industrial and magnetic media shifts to serial interfaces.

AdvancedTCA (ATCA) is inching its way up the curve. Gigabit Ethernet was an interesting start, but higher-speed fabrics will push ATCA into the future. In fact, ATCA systems for all major fabrics will be available this year.

ATCA isn't alone either. Blade servers remain hot, but the lack of a board standard allows every vendor to fill the void. Standard fabrics still tie blades together.

At the fabric forefront is InfiniBand (Fig. 1). Its DDR2 (double data rate) speed, low overhead, and remote DMA (RDMA) make it an ideal match for the fastest systems around, namely supercomputers. Most of its original supporters who switched to other fabric alternatives have returned as well, so expect a lot of InfiniBand products and systems this year. Thanks to its low cost, it can be found on a number of motherboards.

Of course, newcomers must contend with the venerable VME, which is now 25 years old. Almost ancient in electronics years, VME offers lots of flexibility and the power of a mature adult.

Serial fabric-based VITA 46 is VME's high-end solution. Products are due out in quantity this year. Highlighting VME's flexibility, hybrid backplanes will tie VITA 46 boards into systems with VME64 and VITA 41 boards. VITA 41 mixes parallel and serial interfaces.

VME is well established in military and avionic systems. In fact, VME64 likely will comprise the bulk of the shipments for these areas for a number of years. Look for other application areas, too, again due to VME's flexibility.

New, smaller form-factor standards are filling the niche between larger systems like ATCA and VME and custom embedded systems. Also, PC/104 growth will remain high. But now, these more compact systems have an eye on serial interconnects.

MicroTCA uses Advanced Mezzanine Card (AMC) modules like those from Artesyn (Fig. 2). Originally, AMC was designed for ATCA carrier boards. MicroTCA 19-in. rack and 8-in. cube systems will target different environments. The rack system is ideal for branch offices for line cards, while the cube fits nicely into many embedded applications. Plenty of competition from existing architectures is expected.

EPIC Express is the other new standard where products are just beginning to evolve (Fig. 3). Using PCI Express, it gives PC/104 designers a major performance boost while retaining its compact size.

COM Express fits developers who can design their own carrier board. It was successful last year, and more products will continue to make it a compelling solution. Designers still must design carrier boards that support the high-speed serial interfaces. It has become a more common practice, though, which makes COM Express even more desirable.

Microcontrollers based on Arm's 32-bit architecture are creating an exploding module market. Of course, small modules aren't limited to this architecture.

For instance, 16- and 32-bit DSPs and digital signal controllers (DSCs) are amenable to mini module implementations. Even 8-bit microcontrollers find a home on modules. The modules eliminate the need for external components like power regulators, clock crystals, and external memory, allowing designers to concentrate on interfacing and application issues.

NetBurner's MOD5213 module is representative of 32-bit solutions to arrive this year. It houses a Freescale ColdFire MCF5213. Modules like this provide vendors with a consistent platform that can significantly improve integration with development tools because both memory and peripheral specifications are well known.

Hard disks will continue spinning in their state of flux, but the trend toward SATA-II and Serial Attached SCSI (SAS) is clear. There's no need to hoard IDE or SCSI drives just yet, but performance and availability will push most designs toward the newer technologies.

The movement in deeply embedded systems will be difficult, as Serial ATA (SATA) interfaces are just now appearing in microcontrollers. At the high end, clusters will require the performance of SATA-II and SAS to meet capacity, reliability, and throughput requirements. Besides, motherboard vendors are quickly switching from IDE and SCSI to SATA-II and SAS. Expect the IDE interfaces to disappear in this class of systems within the next year or two.

SAS will really take off this year. Expect SAS RAID controllers to finally be out in force. Low-end systems will use SATA-II drives, especially because of their capacity. Still, SAS drives deliver reliability and performance that SATA-II can't match. Perpendicular recording-based drives will see the light of day this year, bringing promised density improvements. Fibre Channel, iSCSI, and Infini-Band will benefit greatly.

Keep your head down, because there's going to be a major shootout now that HDDVD and BluRay drives are beginning to ship. Consumers will finally get their choice. But the real driving factors will be vendors, integrators, and the studios. May the best-marketed technology win.

Embedded storage is being split between flash memory and sub-1-in. hard-disk drives. Both will see major increases in capacity, as well as improved speed and reliability. Perhaps the biggest change will be in devices that now contain significant amounts of memory—in particular, 32-bit microcontrollers that can effectively utilize gigabytes of file storage.

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