Embedded Success: It’s About More Than Just The Core

July 11, 2012
Strides have been made in performance and flexibility throughout the MCU marketplace, but the sheer volume and diversity of solutions requires specialist software-enablement support.

A steady stream of dramatic changes has altered, and continues to reshape, the microcontroller landscape. Thus, selecting the right enablement solutions carries more weight than ever, which in turns requires higher levels of support from distributors.

Driven by the success of the ARM Cortex licensable core, the 32-bit segment has become the fastest growing segment within the microcontroller market. New microcontroller families based on the Cortex-M3 and M0 embedded cores tempt designers to migrate to 8- and 16-bit designs. That’s because they offer increased processing capability in addition to new architectures and silicon technology, leading to reductions in power consumption and cost.

Proprietary 32-bit processor architectures also are feeling the pressure from higher-performing Cortex-M3 variants, as well as Cortex-M4 micros leveraging built-in DSP capability. Moreover, Cortex application processors, such as the A8 and A9 series, allow developers to consider more sophisticated solutions in highly cost-sensitive projects.

New Freedoms And Features

The Cortex approach gives developers the extra freedom to adjust and upgrade their designs in response to evolving markets and applications. It becomes easier to scale to a device in a different performance or cost level, within a given manufacturer’s portfolio.

On top of that, developers can work with microcontrollers from various manufacturers without having to invest in a complete new set of knowledge and tools for each MCU. Porting software from one Cortex-based microcontroller to another also is more straightforward than porting to a different processor architecture.

Another ripple effect from the shift toward an industry-standard core is that microcontroller vendors find new ways to differentiate their own products from those of other Cortex licensees. One notable trend is the improving quality of on-chip peripherals, particularly in terms of analogue functions.

Today’s integrated analogue-to-digital converters, for example, surpass the performance of previous generations and compare well with discrete devices.

Other key selling points put forward by competing Cortex licensees include advanced power management and support for various communication standards, such as USB, Ethernet, CAN, and I2S.

With the right blend of connectivity, developers can optimise for a host of applications from industrial equipment and medical devices to consumer electronics and home/office networking.

Alternative Attitudes

Of course, there remain several strong alternatives to the Cortex approach. Producers of successful 8- and 16-bit product ranges are coming forward with next-generation devices that play to key strengths, namely low cost and power consumption, while boosting performance. To accomplish the latter, they combine enhancements to the processor core, increase flash density for code and data storage, and integrate hardware features that offload the CPU (e.g., managing data transfers between external devices or controlling capacitive touch sensors independently).

Vendors also position devices optimised for specialised applications, such as safety microcontrollers for applications requiring Safety Integrity Level (SIL) or IEC 61508 certification. These are backed up by documentation demonstrating conformance, too.

Not to be forgotten in these alternative trends is the higher quality of analogue peripherals integrated alongside proprietary processors, just as in the Cortex world. By exploiting these peripherals, developers can extend the benefits of any investments in tools, knowledge, and software code, while simultaneously improving the performance, cost, and functionality of various end products.

Other vendors add extra on-chip value by integrating functionality, such as a certified wireless subsystem supporting a standard like ZigBee, Bluetooth, or WLAN. Wireless development, in particular, needs a reference design and good-quality evaluation board to jump-start software development and help teams avoid hardware-design and integration challenges.

Focus On Enablement

Given the tremendous strides made in performance and flexibility throughout the MCU marketplace, designers have prioritised design risk avoidance, let alone ensuring the best possible end-product performance.

In the context of Cortex development, selecting optimal drivers, the board support package, and middleware can be complex and confusing due to the sheer volume and diversity of solutions offered through the ARM Connected Community. Suppliers must provide good software-enablement support to help developers overcome these challenges.

For example, Silica (which has distribution franchises including Cortex and non-Cortex microcontroller product ranges) answered that call by further increasing the technical expertise available to its microcontroller customers. A Pan-European software-enablement team, with software leaders active in each country, works between customers, FAE teams, and suppliers to help navigate the myriad project essentials typically provided by third-party developers.

The ARM Connected Community, for instance, has hundreds of members contributing tools, boards, middleware, and software that can provide an effective starting point and help bring the finished product to market.

Selecting the right IP and partners, based on technical merits and other factors like geographical location, can make the difference between being first to market and perhaps not achieving a marketable product at all. Customers’ product design teams must be sure that certain challenges—bringing up the board, handing over to software, and writing the application—can be completed successfully.

To that end, Silica’s software-enablement teams maintain close relationships with compiler/debugger and IDE vendors, providers of software (e.g., drivers, RTOS, protocol stacks, and file systems), and partners providing hardware such as boards and board support packages.

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