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EiED Online>> 2006 Embedded Systems Conference

I had a busy time before, during, and after the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) this year. That is why it took so long to get this first overview of ESC out the door. I will have another that covers many of the products I saw in more detail. Here I will address some highlights and trends that I saw at the show.

Overall, ESC was very upbeat. Traffic on the floor was good (see Fig. 1) although the first day was a little slow, probably due to the rain and the traffic. The San Jose convention center was packed to the walls. A significant number of vendors found themselves out on the main concourse. That turned out to be a pretty good place to be from a traffic standpoint. Corner booths like CMX’s did well (see Fig. 2).

The biggest problem was the number of entries into the main hall and the placement of the technical sessions that was to one side of the main hall. Vendors close to the tech sessions received a nice flood of attendees between sessions. Still, all vendors I talked to seemed to like the level of traffic and attendee interest. The overall feeling was one of a bustling market with a few lulls.

Compact 32-Bit RTOS
The surge of 32-bit microcontrollers continues. Atmel was showing off its new AVR32 architecture. All the 32-bit hardware vendors were out in force with new products.

This trend has finally been followed up with a plethora of compact, 32-bit RTOSs.

CMX exhibited the new 32-bit version of its flagship CMX-RTX RTOS along with a collection of matching 32-bit protocol stacks. Green Hills Software also released their new u-velOSity. It is upward compatible with Green Hills’ other platforms: velOSity and Integrity.

Vendors with existing small-footprint, 32-bit RTOSs were showing off their own improved versions. Xpress Logic revealed its Threadx V5. The new features include run-time stack analysis, built in trace, and Event-Chaining. The latter allows programmers to cascade events and semaphores so a task need only wait on one event that is linked to these other events. Enea had its OSE RTOS tracking a small train (see Fig. 3). However, Enea’s big announcement was a joint venture with MontaVista. The pair is delivering a Distributed Telecom Platform that combines the best of Linux and OSE, including OSE’s Linux message-passing system that will now be integrated with MontaVista Linux.

Robots Galore
Robots were not walking, or rolling, around the walkways of ESC, but they seem to be the demo of choice these days. They were found playing soccer (see Fig. 4) and dancing up a storm (see Fig. 5). I was sometimes wondering if I was at the Robo Business conference instead of ESC. I expect this trend to be more extreme next year as robot hardware becomes easier to obtain and program.

Sun Microsystems had a novel way of showing off its system employing a pair of fans controlling a balance beam (see Fig. 6). The system ran real-time Java that tracked the movement and position of the beam and ran the pair of fans. This was actually a more difficult task than some of the other demos on the floor that would balance a rod on a railed car.

Doing DSO
The DSO (Device Software Optimization) World area (see Fig. 7) had a little traffic. Actually it had a bit more than my first photo shows. Inside there was a nice coffee bar (see Fig. 8) and plenty of demos and tech people to give their view of DSO. Likewise, DSO was highlighted in a number of other vendor booths. Some were rather comfortable (see Fig. 9).

DSO is an interesting trend, although it tends to be more of a marketing tool for larger companies with a breadth of products such as Wind River and Green Hills Software. There is some commonality among vendors’ DSO but no real standards. What they tend to be selling is an end-to-end solution that is typical of their larger customers. It is just as applicable for smaller customers looking for a single-stop shop, but it tends to be less of an issue when the number of components required by the customer is limited to an RTOS, C/C++ development platform, and maybe a protocol stack or two.

Open-source platforms and tools like Linux and the Eclipse IDE seem to be a common thread binding the disparate DSO vendors together. Still, most treat these open-source platforms more like proprietary tools with rather restrictive licensing and integration of proprietary plug-ins or services. While this approach can provide customers with great value, customers need to realize what they are buying into. It will be interesting to see if anything like standards comes out of the DSO trend. I have not seen anything along this line yet.

New Technologies: Standards In The Flesh
One clear trend was the acceptance and implementation of existing standards. PCI Express, SATA (serial ATA), SAS (serial attached SCSI), high-speed USB and wireless support were showing up in a range of products (see Fig. 10). Digi International was showing its ExpressCard wireless prototype (see Fig. 11), so even the ExpressCard technology seems to be flourishing. Zigbee was hot and there were even some interesting 900-MHz Zigbee announcements like those from ZMD AG.

Embedded designs other than rack-based solutions are starting to take on new standards like PICMG’s COM Express. COM Express supports PCI Express, Gigabit Ethernet, and SATA. A number of vendors, including Kontron, had COM Express on display. The standard is also expanding to address different form factors and feature sets.

Even technologies like Advanced Switching Interconnect (ASI) were on display at ESC. Stargen’s ASI demo (see Fig. 12) was much more complex than previous years’ demos that supported just a few links using prototype chips and FPGAs. Stargen had its ASI adapter and the demo rack had plenty of bandwidth in addition to management software. This stuff is real and ready to deploy.

PC/104 Goes On, And On, And …
Of course, older technologies like IDE, PCI, ISA, and RS-232 continue to be supported. PC/104’s core architecture remains a cash cow for a number of vendors, and developers are taking advantage of the wide variety of boards available from numerous vendors. These vendors were out in force at ESC and ISA is still the workhorse that it was ten years ago.

That is not to say that PC/104 is standing still. Boards with new technologies like SATA and Gigabit Ethernet were available and USB inside-the-box appears to be gaining ground. Large, low-cost flash memory modules are also changing the way embedded solutions are designed.

It looks like there will be a redesign of EPIC Express. There were no EPIC Express boards on display at the show so we will have to wait until ESC Boston to see if things have been finalized. Fastwel was showing off a PC/104 form-factor board that did have PCI Express links though.

Some possible options for a new EPIC Express include the addition of PCI alongside PCI Express and x16 lane support for high-end video. Discussions are ongoing, so we will have to wait to see where the PC/104 Consortium takes this standard.

I won’t name names, but I had some interesting discussions about RoHS (Restriction of Hazardous Substances) at the show. RoHS has definitely had an effect on the delivery of new technology because of the distraction of redesigning existing systems. End-of-life issues and the unavailability of many parts that are RoHS-compliant are causing vendors major grief.

At least one company has taken a different tack. There are exceptions being made for RoHS compliance. Instead of having engineers working on a redesign, the company hired some lawyers to track down the exemptions in the law to provide reasons why its existing products met these exemptions. It will be interesting to see if this simply buys more time, but even that may be a major advantage because many vendors of RoHS components are not providing guarantees for their parts for at least two years. There is simply not enough of a track record and we could be in for problems related to version 1 implementations. For more information check out

There were a number of contests that gave away their awards at ESC. I was a judge for two of them. The first was the PC/104 Consortium Design Contest. The winner in Category I: Commercial for Industrial/medical/transportation/other was the Automated Decontamination Trailer. The winner in Category II: Commercial for Military/Aerospace was the Magnetic Test Bench. The winner in Category III: Research Project was Type 1’s robot. All projects employed PC/104 stacks.

Lantronix’s WiPort design contest had three winners. The projects had to include the company’s WiPort wireless 802.11 module. First place went to eLawn, a remote-control and monitoring lawn-watering system. It could also support a range of sensors such as weather sensors. Second place went to a wireless pool monitoring. Third place was for the LAN*Minder Network Power Controller. All of these projects are destined to be commercial products. All had a web-based interface.

You can check out the winners and other competitors for these contests at the organizer’s websites. They are worth a quick look.

I will be writing up most of the products and announcements in Electronic Design and in a subsequent EIED Online article.

Related Links


Digi International


Express Logic


Green Hills Software




PC/104 Consortium


Robo Business Conference and Exposition


Sun Microsystems

Wind River


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