Digital ICs> Microcontrollers And Microprocessors

Jan. 12, 2004
Micro Sparks Fly At Both Ends Of The Spectrum

The 64-bit micro space will get a lot of play this year. For servers and workstations, the PowerPC, Itanium, Sparc, and Opteron architectures give users many choices, augmented by the increased use of Linux. These faster and cheaper processors should fuel supercomputer growth.

It will be harder to see, but embedded 64-bit processors should be where the numbers are coming large and fast. Running a 64-bit processor at a slower speed is often more efficient than using a 32-bit alternative, especially when number-crunching is involved. Still, use of off-the-shelf 32-bit MCUs is on the rise.

There will be continued action at the other end of the spectrum. Look for more on-chip clocks for one-chip, 8-bit solutions. Improved clock accuracy and increased analog support are placing chips with low pin counts in new applications. Even lower-power offerings will increase the number of battery-based applications. There also are more high-end, performance-enhancing technologies such as intelligent peripherals moving down into the 8-bit space. Best of all, the costs are still going down.

High-speed, serial fabric interfaces like PCI Express, RapidIO, and HyperTransport will be making real inroads this year. Greater availability of switches and peripherals will nicely complement the integration with processor chips. PCI Express will complement RapidIO and HyperTransport, although all three play in different but overlapping spaces.

Security is more important than ever. However, the only standards are for encryption technologies. Key management and digital rights management are still in disarray, but that won't stop MCUs from incorporating security technology. The market for board-based security has given rise to more dedicated security chips, as has the need for high-speed, encrypted packet processing in network switches.

  • ARMING THE MASSES The growth of standard 32-bit MCUs continues, with ARM-based solutions leading the way. Vendors will further widen their product lines, but the real empowerment will come on the software side. Lower-cost development tools will mark the migration from custom systems-on-a-chip to off-the-shelf MCUs. Look for additional enhancements in standard parts for multimedia and security applications.
  • INTERCONNECTS DRAW BATTLE LINES AROUND HIGH-END CPUs PCI Express will be the high-speed peripheral interconnect for the world. The problem with that is it does a lousy job of handling multiple CPUs, Advanced Switching not withstanding. This means designers must make CPU decisions based on their native interconnect, be it HyperTransport, RapidIO, or Advanced Switching. Don't look for much coexistence with anything but PCI Express and USB. This will reduce the number of choices for peripherals because they must use the same interconnect as the processor.
  • HIGH-SPEED LINKS START TO MIRROR EACH OTHER Get a good idea and everyone picks up on it. InfiniBand had RDMA (remote DMA). HyperTransport had packet streaming. All high-speed interconnects get more bandwidth using multiple data streams. But don't expect everything to merge into a common architecture. We've seen the scenario before with CMOS and TLL. Each will find its niche, which means support is going to be needed for a long time to come.
  • 8-BIT MCUs GROW UP AND DOWN They're getting so small that the connections are dominating the packaging. A boost in flash memory capacity is lending a hand, though. This will be good for companies that have maintained a stable of 8-bit developers, because the functionality continues to climb while the cost of an 8-bit MCU continues to tumble.
  • FPGAs + CPUs = DIFFERENTIATION Put a hard or soft CPU into an FPGA and you get a flexible solution that's hard to replicate. Differentiation with just software is hard to do, but adding an FPGA into the mix can make the difference. Look for growth in this end of the embedded market, as well as a continued flow of new chips. It's also one way to quickly deliver integrated solutions using the latest switch fabrics.
  • NEW PERIPHERAL INTERFACES MOVE ON-CHIP Look for a new class of MCUs supporting interfaces like PCI Express, USB 2.0, and Serial ATA as on-board peripherals become more available. These will complement existing interfaces like Ethernet and CAN as interfaces (e.g., PCI) move out of the limelight. These new MCUs will push the envelope this year, but quantities are limited.
  • MULTITHREADING MOVES IN Embedded processors will get a leg up in the multitasking environment with hardware multithreading support like that found on the Intel Pentium 4. Expect delivery of chips with different ways to exploit idle execution hardware. Also, look for multiprocessor systems that distribute this multithread load among processors.
  • IS JAVA HARD TO SWALLOW? Having a new crop of 32-bit MCUs has advantages for Java developers as Java acceleration becomes more common. Initially targeted at cell phones and mobile devices, these fast Java solutions will find their way into more embedded applications where safety and dynamic application updates are important. Incremental costs for fast Java support will make these MCUs much easier to swallow.
  • SECURITY CONCERNS Be it secure network communication or digital rights management, many MCU-based products will wind up needing hardware security support. The lack of standards, other than basic encryption, or Internet links such as SSL will make decisions about the right MCU more difficult. But at least options will be available. Also check out smart memories with built-in encryption and key support to augment new or existing designs.
  • IMPROVED ON-CHIP CLOCKS SAVE MCU PINS Low-pin-count MCUs in low-cost applications are getting easier to find as on-chip clock technology improves. This is critical for a one-chip solution where space is critical. More accurate on-chip clocks also make faster communication practical using fewer lines, especially for data-acquisition applications like environmental monitoring.

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