Embedded/ Software/ Systems: Overview

Jan. 6, 2003
Innovation Scale Tips To Hardware In Embedded Technology

Embedded Developers are a Conservative Lot, and with good reason. An embedded system that has to last five years is a short run. Systems must go out the door well tested, which typically means using hardware and software with a track record. That's why C and C++ are mainstays in software development, and why PCI will remain a fixture for this year. Of course, embedded developers will have lots of new technology at their fingertips. Some, such as InfiniBand and HyperTransport, have short but growing track records. InfiniBand looks to be a great match for blade servers, and embedded designers agree. This year should reveal real hardware using Serial ATA, RapidIO, and PCI Express. The shift to serial links and switch fabrics starts now. Desktop and server markets will exploit these technologies today while more deeply embedded systems will adopt them slowly.

In the meantime, existing technologies like USB and 1394 will be found in embedded systems. USB 2.0 provides needed bandwidth, while new connector and protocol specifications for 1394 will suit it for harsher consumer environments such as vehicles. USB is also showing up in more MCUs this year, even though USB development remains difficult.

Under the hood, CAN is still king with LIN wrapping up the low-end peripherals. CAN has the edge over Ethernet when it comes to low-cost implementations, especially on 8- and 16-bit MCUs. Dozens of new MCUs have built-in CAN and LIN support. Of course, Ethernet is still popular with all levels of embedded systems, including 8-bit micros. A number of 16- and 32-bit MCUs have built-in Ethernet MACs. MCUs with CAN and Ethernet are providing substantial gateway platform support.

COTS did remarkably well compared to the rest of the economy, with the exception of telecom-related hardware. That was one bubble that burst right in the middle of the CompactPCI (cPCI) market. CompactPCI will keep plugging along while VME gets to build on a broader base, because telecom was a fraction of the VME market. Both may benefit from the move to switch fabrics for high-performance, high-reliability systems, but PICMG 2.16 seems to be on hold for most developers waiting for 3.x. Bus-based solutions will remain the choice for low- to medium-sized projects.

Wireless networking will continue to grow as 802.11g finally makes an appearance. Bluetooth products will show up in numbers, but use remains concentrated on the cell-phone market. Look for ZigBee in low-end wireless, embedded systems. Security will remain an issue for all wireless technologies.

Software security, coupled with hardware support, will be a hot area this year. Watch out for digital rights management supporters to push for more hardware and mandatory software support. It's smart to look under the hood before buying or supporting these products because the hype isn't always what's delivered. In many instances, key management and encryption is done for control purposes versus data integrity.

Software development tools received a push with the release of Eclipse. More vendors will support its plug-in environment, as well as adopt it as a delivery platform. Three operating-system (OS) vendors have already customized the Eclipse, replacing proprietary development platforms. It will definitely give Microsoft Visual Studio some competition. Eclipse's multi-OS support allows it to take on Sun ONE Studio and KDevelop.

Java keeps gaining ground, but C and C++ remain the primary embedded development languages. C# may gain some adherents on the embedded front, but it's still a relatively new technology for conservative developers. It remains unclear if the open-source support for C# plus Microsoft's support will match Java. Hardware support for Java is becoming more common, yet consolidated within existing processor architectures.

You can count on the continued expansion of IPv6. Dual-stack IPv4/IPv6 implementations will be found in most design wins, except for the very low-end applications. U.S. Internet service providers will steer clear of delivering IPv6 to all but high-end customers. Still, IPv6 will be on the checklist for all new hardware making the migration inevitable, although a switchover won't occur this year.

Switching is happening in the real-time OS (RTOS) space where the roll-your-own OS is giving way to Linux and other RTOS vendors. Compact RTOSs are becoming more common on MCU projects as processors with larger memories become available. Established vendors are providing one-stop shopping with the delivery of bundles that include the RTOS, configuration tools, and IDE development tools.

Look for additional integration by hardware vendors that will allow many developers to get started on a project in days instead of weeks. Tighter tool integration with vendor Web sites will make updates and configuration chores easier.

Overall, the hardware side appears to have the edge on new technology for the year, with software providing more refinements.

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