Electronic Design

EiED Online>> Scaling Connectivity and Open-Source Licensing

If you figured out what I am going to cover from the title, you're doing better than I. It's actually a combination of things that happened on my recent trip to Austin, Texas, to attend Freescale's first annual Embedded Connectivity Summit (ECS). On the way to ECS, I was reading Lawrence Rosen's new book, entitled Open Source Licensing. But more on that later.

Freescale, a.k.a. Motorola Semiconductor, is finally free of its IPO restrictions and talking up technology like gangbusters. The theme of the show was obviously connectivity with Ethernet, controller area network (CAN), and wireless at the top of the agenda. ZigBee has the most traction on the wireless side, although 802.11 was there in force as well. The technical sessions were extensive, including coverage of software topics like Linux. There also was some discussion of security issues, but not as much as at the Embedded Systems Conference in Boston.

Paul Grimme, senior vice president of the Transportation and Standard Products Group, led off with the first keynote speech on Monday (Fig. 1). He came out wearing a cowboy hat and proceeded to wear some additional headgear, including a beret to highlight the fact that Freescale covers a lot of technology areas but lacks fashion sense. Still, he did touch on the major areas presented at the conference, including wired and wireless networking.

I interviewed Paul about the direction Freescale is taking. The company's latest set of product releases cover a wide range of areas-from the NE64, an HCS12-based MCU with built-in Ethernet support, to multiple-core PowerQuic processors at the high end of the spectrum.

Discussions with Paul and other Freescale managers made some general trends apparent. First, 16-bit products definitely are not going the way of the dodo. In fact, a spread of 8-, 16-, 32-, and 64-bit products is needed to cover the wide range of applications. Second, digital signal controllers, like Freescale's 56F8xx and 56F83xx DSP/GPP (digital signal processor/general purpose processor), are becoming more mainstream and frequently the choice for general applications. Finally, low-cost development tools are showing up across the board, not just for low-end processors.

Of course, there was discussion of the general trends we have seen in the industry. One such trend is ubiquitous connectivity.

The conference was primarily session-oriented, but there was some hardware on display courtesy of Freescale customers (Fig. 2). Plenty of software companies were there, including QNX and Green Hills Software, with their development tools and operating-system offerings. Real Time Automation presented its new Freescale-based Ethernet/CAN gateway product.

The Comedy Club
ECS had more than just interviews and technical sessions. On Tuesday, Freescale enlisted the services of Don McMillan, an ex-ASIC designer turned comedian (Fig. 3). You may have seen him around. He has a long comedic resume, including visits on The Tonight Show. He was well-versed in technical comedy, complete with an impressive and hilarious PowerPoint presentation. I especially enjoyed his recommendations against excessive use of bulleted items on a slide. I didn't think you could cram that many bullets and animations into one slide!

Don has his own Web site, and it is probably best to take a look at his advertising movie clip to get a feel for his humor. Some of the bits on the clip were also part of his ECS presentation. His session was definitely the most enjoyable part of the summit.

Technical Trends
The technical sessions all tended to have a Freescale bent, but many were relatively generic. Audience interaction was good, allowing me to observe some interesting trends. First, interest in CAN in nontransportation applications is growing. CAN provides a more robust solution than multidrop RS-485, and the availability of low-cost CAN MCUs is increasing. This cost decrease definitely results from the success of CAN in automotive applications. The hardware support for CAN also minimizes processor overhead.

Second, the majority of developers don't understand ZigBee very well. Hardware is available, but we are at the beginning of the learning curve. There was no mention of the possible divergence of the ZigBee standard, as low-speed ZigBee is where the action is right now. Security, mesh networks, and ZigBee's place in the wireless space stirred up active discussions.

Third, Ethernet in MCUs is becoming almost as common as I2C support. This makes it less expensive and easier to incorporate into a system design. Compact TCP/IP stacks make Ethernet support practical in 8- and 16-bit MCUs, although Ethernet integration with 8-bit has yet to occur.

Fourth, off-the-shelf real-time operating-system (RTOS) usage is going up. Compact implementations like uClinux are making it easier to implement networking applications even on 8- and 16-bit platforms. They are also useful in 32-bit MCUs where memory limitations still exist.

Finally, PCI Express is getting into the discussion, but it will be another year before it becomes a standard part of MCU-based applications. PCI Express will remain a workstation/server technology for the near future. Availability of PCI Express-based peripheral interfaces for embedded applications just isn't here yet. Also, designers simply do not have the expertise dealing with PCI Express to feel comfortable in designing this technology into embedded applications.

Freescale Highlights
While no major announcements were made at the show, Freescale did show or discuss some items that it previously announced. These include the popular NE64 MCU, the MC9S12NE64, with built-in Ethernet support. A Power-over-Ethernet link easily could power the Freescale demo board (Fig. 4).

Also, keep an eye on MRAM, Freescale's nonvolatile memory solution that has finally made it out of the lab. It has the potential for blowing away flash memory, though not in the near future. Expect to see much more about MRAM in 2005.

Books and Long Plane Rides
I receive way too many books to review, but one caught my eye lately. I wound up reading Lawrence Rosen's Open Source Licensing on the way to ECS. From my perspective, this is a must-have book for anyone using or considering using open-source software.

The book provides an excellent, easy-to-understand presentation of all major open source licenses, such as the BSD (Berkley Source Distribution) and the GNU (GNU is not UNIX) GPL (general public license). It also addresses other licensing schemes, such as Microsoft's shared source offering.

I picked up a number of insights even though I have been following and using open-source licensing for many years. This includes areas such as incorporating open-source software into your products without having to reveal trade secrets.

My reading wasn't all about work while traveling to ECS. I also picked up a copy of David Weber's The Service of the Sword and got hooked. Now I have another series to read and put a hole in my wallet. It is great sci-fi reading. If you are on a budget and want to check out David's writings, then go to Baen's site, the publisher of David's books. You can view and download his first book, On Basilisk Station, at Baen's online library. You can check out Honor Harrington and Manticore's Star Kingdom for free. Of course, you can buy the rest of the paperbacks at your nearest bookstore. They are like potato chips. You can't eat just one.

Until next week...

Related Links
Baen's Free Online Books (David Weber's publisher)

Don McMillan - Technically a comedian


Green Hills Software


Prentice Hall (Open Source Licensing by Lawrence Rosen)

Real Time Automation

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