As the demand for connectivity rises and industries evolve, companies need technologies that can evolve with them. From automotive to consumer electronics to factory automation and all points in between, almost everything is connected, although not just to the Internet. Actually, these embedded systems are often in clusters, connected to each other, with only one device acting as a gateway to the Internet. Examples include factory automation, vehicle body networks, and building automation, although limited Internet connectivity for the control system may exist, as the user interface is a Web page.
You may think automotive applications are immune from this trend. However, as electronics in the car become more sophisticated, the automobile is on the top of the list. For example, the popular OnStar system is networked within the car but must also be connected to the master network. The same is true with consumer electronics. Whether in the car, home, or factory, these intelligent applications require remote monitoring, control, and maintenance.
While vastly different in their purpose, all of these applications share a common challenge: interoperability between subsystems. At this point, the various communications protocols come into play. Designs in every industry segment are built around standard interfaces. You probably can't find a complex chip today that does not have some sort of standard interface. These interfaces vary greatly—from market-specific, such as the automotive industry's LIN and FlexRay, to more broadly based, such as ZigBee and ultra-wideband for wireless. But the interface drawing the greatest attention by far is Ethernet, particularly in the embedded world.
Ethernet's ease of use, wide availability, and high level of scalability are making it a requirement in today's marketplace. Ethernet allows embedded devices to be connected to and controlled over the Internet, which permits access to the device from across the hall or across the globe. Remote connectivity through the Internet offers many benefits, including savings on manpower, time, and money, while allowing real-time access to information.
Additionally, Ethernet is an open system. There are no known license fees, and specifications are freely available to designers. The movement away from older, centralized control strategies to distributed control is driving the demand for open networks. End users want an enabling technology that provides true device interoperability, enhanced field-level control, simplified maintenance, and reduced installation costs. Ethernet meets these requirements while still offering deterministic high performance.
Ethernet is also high-speed. Originally designed as a 10-Mbit/s half-duplex interface, today's implementations are based on Fast Ethernet (100 Mbits/s) and 1-Gbit/s Ethernet, which can work in full-duplex mode. And, a 10-Gbit/s mode is in the works.
Ethernet has a low price because of the widely available broad base of components and information, including tools, software, and more. To ease the burden on the designer, device providers are beginning to offer all these components in one package. This lets the designer focus on the unique components of the application and makes implementing Ethernet on different hardware platforms relatively simple and cost effective. An existing Ethernet infrastructure is in today's home, office, and industrial environments. Cabling and hubs, switches, and routers enable the easy integration of next-generation Ethernet devices into existing networks.
Embedded system designers must recognize that while the machines must be able to talk with one another, the same challenges exist. Issues like latency and fault tolerance must be considered for any application or system under development. Ethernet's many benefits address these concerns and more, demonstrated by its growing popularity.
No longer is Ethernet connectivity just about networks within and between offices. Ethernet is extending networks out to the factory floor, fast-food kitchen, and even the local grocery store. As such, embedded designers must feel confident that their suppliers know where the industry is going and can arm them to stay ahead of the Ethernet evolution.