Without a doubt, standardsbased hardware will be easier to apply this year. Last year's prototypes for the likes of VPX and EPIC Express will turn out in real products for use in production, providing access to high-speed interfaces like PCI Express, Serial RapidIO, InfiniBand, and Serial ATA. Even SAS (Serial Attached SCSI) products will be available in bulk. Coupled with this bounty, though, come heat and security challenges that will be more difficult to handle than ever before.
New Storage Technologies
Perpendicular recording was the big announcement last year, including drives like Seagate's 160-Gbyte Momentus 5400 (Fig. 1). These highercapacity drives will arrive in quantity this year, leading to some interesting mobile applications.
Larger flash memories will continue to force higher capacities in the harddisk area—a boon to embedded developers who need fast, rugged storage. Apacer Memory America has a SATAbased flash drive, and Texas Memory Systems just introduced the first InfiniBand-based solid-state disk.
Look for some impressive capacity gains in optical storage, particularly in regards to Blu-ray and HD DVD. However, keep an eye on holographic storage from InPhase for even more capacity, courtesy of the compact Spatial Light Modulator (SLM) from DisplayTech. This is the heart of the write head that's needed to hit densities an order of magnitude better than Blu-ray and HD DVD drives.
Serial Trio: USB, PCI Express,
This isn't the year for a wholesale migration away from PS/2 and IDE, but the winds of change are rather gusty. PCMCIA ExpressCard adoption is strong in the laptop market, and embedded designers are taking a closer look as more microcontrollers come with built-in USB and PCI Express interfaces (Fig. 2). ExpressCardoffers higher throughput, lower cost, and more rugged packaging—three traits that captivate all embedded designers.
USB 2.0 Hi-Speed and On-The-Go will finally have a significant impact in new system designs because of the availability of peripherals and device drivers. They've already made their presence felt in PCs, printers, and digital cameras, but that's only the start.
PCI Express is now showing up in more PC slots than PCI. The move may be quicker than the ISA transition, though it's still possible to find ISA slots.
Meanwhile, high-performance applications such as video and storage are chewing up PCI Express bandwidth as quickly as possible. It's a boon for RAID systems. Also, an untapped opportunity— eSATA (external SATA)—is appearing on some PCs and will likely make for some interesting embedded designs.
New Modules And Boards
Highspeed serial is one of the driving forces for new form factors and board and module standards. Look to modules like Kontron's ETXexpress-CD to handle the latest Intel Core Duo processors, as well as provide interfaces via Gbit Ethernet and PCI Express (Fig. 3).
There also will be a larger selection in other standard form factors that add PCI Express support (like XTX). They retain PCI but drop ISA or EPIC Express. And don't overlook older standards like CompactPCI, PC/104, EPIC, and VME, which are benefiting from the latest processor and peripheral technology, too. Lower-power processors make more powerful fanless designs possible. Dual-core processors fit in the same sockets as single-core alternatives.
Another relatively new form factor known as MicroT-CA (Telecommunications Computing Architecture) is based on the Advanced Mezzanine Card (AMC) standard introduced with the larger AdvancedTCA form factor. It will be used in more than communications-related basestations this year.
Mention ATCA, and switch fabrics come to mind. It isn't the only standard pushing fabric backplanes, since there's VPX and a collection of other standards as well. The big difference this year is that you'll be able to get your hands on real backplanes and real boards.
FPGAs And Boards
VPX boards will push the envelope this year, while FPGAs stand alongside DSP arrays and singleboard computers (SBCs). FPGAs are doing the heavy lifting in applications such as radar. Their use will continue in those fields, but these devices are also creeping into other embedded areas.
Look for more boards like Diamond Systems' GPIO-MM family, which features a 200-kgate Xilinx Spartan II RAM-based FPGA. The FPGA provides different peripheral combinations, such as general-purpose I/O and timers. Low-cost FPGAs can reduce the amount of unique boards while delivering many different functional combinations that replace numerous fixedfunction boards.
General FPGA use may be getting a leg up, too. Software-development tools, particularly graphically based programming environments, are seriously simplifying the FPGA design process. As a result, application experts can concentrate on the application while taking advantage of the FPGA's parallel performance.
The "More Is Better" Theory
FPGAs still require design expertise that's often lacking in many programming circles, so most developers prefer regular programmable processors. Nonetheless, there are areas of change for programmable platforms. One way is to take a fixedfunction parallel processing unit and turn it into a more general platform.
That's what AMD is doing with its stream processing board. It essentially contains a graphics processor but is opened up for application programming instead of being mated to a display. The multiple cores and parallel data streams work equally well for other applications, not just for graphics display cards. Look for even more accelerators cropping up this year.
Security is one place where hardware acceleration use is on the rise. Performance boosts are possible as more security-related accelerators move to PCI Express. This tends to match the increased size of server clusters handling secure traffic as well as streaming media.
We'll see a greater frequency of security hardware integration in microcontrollers as the demand for secure communications with embedded devices grows. It should also be easier to find microcontrollers that are able to store keys in secure memory, as well as implementations that can secure the microcontroller's program code.
Embedded developers will have a wider range of choices in terms of power efficiency, performance, and functionality. Legacy-free platforms will become more common, but even the ISA bus is here to stay.