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Electronic Design

Embedded Strides Swiftly Down The Standard Path

Standardized platforms and COTS options fuel hardware and software development.

Platforms give embedded designers a standard base to build upon, be it hardware or software. These platforms and standards gain greater importance as developers interact with each other more, and as final products start to interact. Driving all of this is the need to lower costs and power consumption while decreasing time-to-market. In 2005, that need will become even more pressing.

Form factors, from the compact Mini-ITX to the large AdvancedTCA, provide standard hardware platforms (Fig. 1). With them, embedded developers can quickly build solutions on top of sophisticated platforms. Developers unfamiliar with commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) options must learn about the possibilities, or developers armed with the COTS advantage will overtake them.

Software development also is moving past single-company established platforms. The Eclipse development platform, now under the auspices of the Eclipse Foundation, has been the light luring the major development players. This is likely to continue as developers discover the benefit of third-party integration supported by Eclipse.

The big move toward standard hardware and software platforms has been necessary to accommodate the growing number of new and complex interfaces at both the hardware and software level, such as PCI Express and ZigBee wireless network stacks.

PCI Express, Serial ATA (SATA), Ethernet, and Universal Serial Bus (USB) will be where it's at for system designers. All but USB run at gigabit-per-second speeds, making hardware design difficult. COTS solutions let developers take advantage of these technologies without having to resort to complex design chores.

This year, PCI Express moves from a research phase to production for many developers. PCI and even ISA interfaces will continue to be used. But designers looking for the best performance will have to move up to the latest serial technology.

SATA drives are now in the mainstream, and the demand for integrated-development-environment (IDE) and SCSI drives will continue to shrink (Fig. 2). SATA's benefits, like hot-swap and compact connectors and cabling, make it an ideal fit for embedded applications.

USB 2.0 Full Speed (12 Mbits/s) has been a hit for embedded devices. It's easy enough to use with integrated microcontrollers. USB 2.0 High Speed (480 Mbits/s) is primarily used for external storage, which is less interesting in embedded designs.

Expect more from HyperTransport and InfiniBand this year. The HyperTransport Consortium's HTX adapter interface moves HyperTransport off the board and into the interconnect world. One of the first products to fit into an HTX slot, PathScale's InfiniPath InfiniBand adapter, targets high-performance computing solutions. It takes advantage of InfiniBand's high throughput and lowers its latency by a factor of three.

Elsewhere within the switch-fabric world is RapidIO, which will continue to expand its niche in communications and military applications. Developers will get to look at Advanced Switching (AS) that builds on PCI Express hardware this year. AS is still in its early stages, but having real hardware will make a big difference. StarFabric continues to hold the fort until AS arrives en masse.

AdvancedTCA is the platform for switch fabrics, with Gigabit Ethernet heading the field. Look for the fabrics of choice to match the application requirements instead of having one dominant technology. AdvancedTCA also is bringing out the best in software. System-management software and Carrier Grade Linux will continue to mature as fewer developers start from scratch.

Software platforms incorporate more than operating-system and system management. Network stacks were getting to be old hat until wireless and security began to change the landscape. ZigBee network stacks will be running through their first iteration this year.

Though securing wireless communication has been a problem in the past, it's still a well-recognized requirement. Many ZigBee stacks will add encryption support later in the year. The big push for security-oriented stacks, however, will involve protection and authentication of data and services over the Internet.

Of course, the bottom line for all of these platforms is integration. More vendors are partnering to create a one-stop shopping atmosphere.

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