Multicore, virtualization, and lots of little microcontroller chips are in the tea leaves this year. New technologies like Serial ATA (SATA) and PCI Express will materialize onto more chips and slowly move down the food chain.
Continually dwindling transistor sizes will transform new processors and microcontrollers, adding intelligence to peripherals and hardware acceleration. They also will boost functionality and drop costs.
In addition, more circuitry has produced a greater level of connectivity that's changing how designers approach a problem. Low-end sensors and controls can be linked with Ethernet and wireless protocols like ZigBee.
The high end gets the glamour even as the low end continues to thrive. The William Baldwin Group, a research firm, noted the growth of 8-bit microcontrollers in a recent survey (Fig. 1). The 8-bit platforms will steadily climb in both functionality and performance.
A significant chunk of this growth likely is due to the shrinking of size, power requirements, and price. For example, Microchip's 8-bit PIC10F microcontroller comes in a 2- by 3-mm dual flat no-lead package (Fig. 2).
The only technology that seems to be disappearing would be 4-bit microcontrollers. Look for a little more consistency in the 32-bit microcontroller space, with ARM pushing its Cortex architectures and Freescale with its popular ColdFire architecture. The driving factor will be highquality tools, many based on Eclipse.
Furthermore, look for even better power-consumption numbers at the low end of the 32-bit spectrum. They probably will never match the low end of the 8- and 16bit platforms, but 32-bit MCUs will give developers higher performance and a better programming platform.
The 32- and 64bit microcontrollers are starting to sport SATA, PCI Express, and Serial RapidIO interfaces. The host chip sets for the 32and 64-bit processors, such as AMD's Athlon and Opteron and Intel's Core Duo and Xeon lines, already bring these interfaces to the high-performance computing realm.
Throughput is only one reason for switching to the newer, high-performance serial interfaces. Pin-count and packagesize reduction are other major factors for the move. For once, packages may be getting smaller as performance and functionality go up.
SATA will push IDE in the embedded space as hard-disk drives continue to flood the market. The smaller cable connections are a definite plus for embedded applications, and access to External SATA and ExpressCard technologies will be new aspects to look for this year. The desktop and laptop markets will lead the way, but embedded is sure to follow, thanks to the simplified physical and electrical interfaces compared to IDE and PCMCIA.
PCI Express won't push PCI out of the embedded space this year. In fact, the number of microcontrollers supporting
PCI will increase, due to the availability of PCI peripherals and the vast reservoir of PCI design talent.
Always the unsung hero, it's remarkable how much USB has changed all of computing. It brings low-cost development tools to market. It has consolidated the low- to medium-speed peripheral interface arena. And it has become the de facto standard for mobile devices, even though the plethora of connector standards is enough to baffle the best embedded designer.
Networking will be everywhere, from 8-bit micros to 64-bit microcontrollers. Ethernet will be stratified with 10BaseT at the low end and 1Gbit Ethernet at the high end. This will make industrial Ethernet very interesting, because all sensors and controls now can be on the same network as the applications and management systems.
The increased memory capacity of microcontrollers, reduced stack size, and hardware acceleration (including encryption support) will significantly change how designers look at embedded applications. It will finally bring issues such as security and IPv6 to the fore.
Look to CAN and its cousin FlexRay for some interesting growth in the microcontroller space. FlexRay will remain strictly automotive for the next year or two, but it offers some interesting options in nonautomotive, real-time applications. CAN should make some useful inroads in robotics as more motor-control chips pick up this interface.
Wi-Fi and WiMAX wireless will remain outside the microcontrollers, but 802.15.4 and ZigBee will be integrated into just about everything below 64 bits. There may be some 32-bit integration by the end of the year.
Generally, networking is making programming more difficult because of the number of devices involved in the system. Of course, this problem tends to be a bit different than the challenges that come up in multicore processors.
This year, 64-bit quad-core processors such as Intel's Core 2 Extreme are rolling off the production line (Fig. 3). With their lower operating power requirements, they will be used in denser clusters as well as embedded applications in which a single chip can provide more performance with less heat dissipation than ever before.
Activity in mixing multicore processors should be interesting this year, as symmetrical multiprocessing (SMP) and non-uniform memory access (NUMA) architectures move toward hundreds of processors. Software will be the key on single-chip, multicore embedded applications. And, processor affinity and other features like virtualization will gain in stature (see "Virtualization Victory").
The low end of the spectrum may open up in multicore applications. It makes sense to use two 8- or 16-bit cores in a number of areas where a dedicated 802.15.4 or USB controller can handle communication, as well as wake up its neighbor only when necessary. This type
of intelligent peripheral can be employed in a wide range of applications (e.g., motor control).
Products will prove whether or not novel, large-scale multicore devices like IntellaSys' SEAforth-24 and its Scalable Embedded Array (SEA) architecture can meet their power and performance claims (see "Cores That Share Chores"). It also will be interesting to see if programmers can keep pace with the hardware enhancements being dreamed up by designers. Surprisingly, a majority of these powerful processors are within reach of most embedded developers.
Low-Cost Development Kits
USB and open-source software (OSS) have changed the lay of the land when it comes to development systems. USB provides power and a standard interface. OSS has delivered tools like the GNU C/C++ compiler and the Eclipse development environment. These are great tools themselves, but they've also forced down the cost of proprietary tools. The competition has created better solutions on all fronts.
It started last year with Texas Instruments' MSP-eZ430U and its integrated debugger (see "Mid-Range Micro Kits"). That trickle will ultimately turn into a flood with offerings like STMicroelectronics' ST7Ultralite (Fig. 4). If the chip can fit into a USB stick, then it will. Otherwise it will be on a relatively inexpensive board like NetBurner's $99 MOD5270LC kit, which is based on Freescale's Coldfire MCF5270 microcontroller.