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Embedded systems trends and developer opportunities


Herb Hinstorff.

Herb Hinstorff.

Today, the world is transitioning from independent devices to  connected systems. Intel has been inside the embedded systems market for over 35 years, having developed 270+ CPUs and SoCs as well as 100+ chipsets.

Herb Hinstorff, director of Marketing, Developer Products Division, Intel Software, said that Intel has been engaged at all levels of the solution stack. He was speaking at the 13th Global Electronics Summit at Santa Cruz, USA.

There are tools to deliver on developer needs, such as debuggers, analyzers, compilers and libraries. There are tools to provide the deep system-level insights into power, reliability and performance.

On the debuggers side, they increase system and device stability and reliability. There is an efficient system, SoC-wide defect analysis and ultra-fast system-wide tracing for software debug. There is an integrated application level debugger. Overall, it speeds system bring-up and development. Analyzers focus on boosting reliability, power efficiency and performance, enabling differentiated designs, system-wide analysis and deep insights.

Compilers go on to optimize performance and efficiency. There is the industry-leading C/C++ compiler. It boosts system and application performance on Intel Atom, Core and Xeon processors. Compilers also take advantage of the multicore to boost performance.

There are libraries for performance and efficiency. Software building blocks increase the developer productivity and boost performance. There are specialized testing functions that handle signal processing, data processing, complex math operations and multimedia processing. Besides, there is future-proof software investments. The libraries provide an easy way to take advantage of the multicore capabilities to boost performance.

The Intel System Studio is an integrated software tool suite that provides deep, system-wide insights to help accelerate time-to-market, strengthen system reliability, and boost power effiency and performance. The JTAG interface has system and application code running Linux.

There is a continued broadening of the OS support, and a broader range of tools to match the expanding SoC capabilities. There is more extensive software based training and simulation, as well as market-specific libraries and APIs.

Given that the market is transitioning from independent devices to connected systems, more capable SoC platforms and complex software stacks require deeper and broader system-level insights and optimizations. Embedded developers can take advantage of the Intel System Studio to accelerate the time-to-market, strengthen system reliability, and boost power efficiency and performance of the Intel architecture-based embedded and mobile systems.

Analog Devices launches portable lab for electronic circuit design


Analog Devices, as part of its University Program, has launched a personal, affordable and portable lab for electronic circuit design in India at the 26th international conference on VLSI, currently ongoing in Pune, India.

Somshubhro Pal Choudhury, MD, Analog Devices India Pvt Ltd said that miniaturization and portability are the key trends today. Desktops have given way to laptops, and then to smartphones and tablets. The expensive vital signs monitoring equipment in hospitals is giving way to more wearable miniaturized power sipping (and not guzzling) medical gadgets. It is natural that education and training for engineering students start taking a similar route.

What is this personal lab?
What it means that the lab will fit in the palm of your hand and would enable students to learn analog and mixed signal design, anywhere and everywhere not limited by their expensive university/college lab setup where access is fairly limited and the amount of time is limited as well to a few hours every week.

Analog Devices' portable lab.

Analog Devices’ portable lab.

What does it mean for students?
With the lab, now, the students can carry on their experiments in their hostels/dorms and in their classrooms, using this portable lab, run experiments quickly during the class to see how real time real-life how a certain change in circuit impacts the results.

It has all the elements of a complete and expensive Lab setup on this portable kit connected with the student’s laptop. Students would not need equipment like oscilloscopes, waveform generators, logic analyzers and power supplies, expensive equipment that only top universities can afford.

Along with the portable kit, online and downloadable software and teaching materials, circuit simulation tools, online support and community, online textbook, reference designs and lab projects to design to enhance learning as a supplement to their core engineering curriculum are also provided free of charge.

This launch is likely to revolutionize electronic circuit design education and learning among the engineering academic community.

Growing might of Indian embedded companies!


I am always delighted when people leave comments, especially suggesting some names or things that I may have overlooked. One such name I may have missed, especially from the line-up of the formidable embedded systems and software industry of India is Procys, a company, where, a reader has suggested that: “most of the employees of Intel or TI for that matter would have served at Procsys once at least!”

First of all, many thanks for that reminder, friend. However, please don’t forget that I am merely a blogger putting down my thoughts. My list of India’s top 10 embedded companies is probably not the final list! Nor am I connected with any media house to qualify as someone who’s list should be considered as an authority!

I just want to remind readers that this blog is merely an honest attempt to be part of the Indian technology ecosystem. As I said, I don’t represent any media house. My thoughts are personal and do not represent the industry status or opinion.

I’ve mentioned earlier the difficulties I’ve had to face, and continue to face, while blogging! Why, some people have outrightly looked down on my blogging! ;) Some others have said — What are you writing? If it is not about IT, who will read that stuff? Don’t try to do such things in India! :)

However, it pleases and humbles me to find that some readers of this blog think so! ;) All I can say is a warm thanks to all of those who care to stop by this blog!

What pleases me even more is the continuing interest in the now known might of the Indian embedded systems and software (and services) industry.

According to the ISA-IDC report of 2007 on the Indian semiconductor and design industry: the embedded software industry in India accounts for a $5.98 billion or 81 percent of the projected share of overall revenues in 2008. This has been further projected to grow to $7.29 billion or 81 percent of the projected share of overall revenues in 2009! That is quite a substantial growth!

This may be a tough year in comparison. However, have full faith in India’s embedded systems and software industry. It will continue to rule for a while, am sure!

Microcontrollers unplugged! How to choose an MCU…


Last month, I’d written a post on how MCUs or microcontrollers are shaping the embedded world. Taking this discussion a little further, I got into a conversation with Upendra Patel, CTO, eInfochips, based in Ahmedabad, with the help of my good friend Princy!

MCUs shaping embedded
On being quizzed on how microcontrollers are shaping the embedded world, Patel said that devices are designed by keeping specialized application in mind and not for general purpose usage in the embedded world. As a result, embedded devices need specialized controllers/co-processors, which are designed to execute the typical functionality in real time by offloading work of main processor.

“Microcontroller fits perfectly in this role, which is self-contained and independent in execution and still supplements to the main processor for processing power. MCUs are the integral part of embedded world and depending on the application, they assume the role of a main processor or a co-processor.

Today’s MCU possesses rich features like, ADCs, PWM generator, communication ports like I2C, SPI, UART, USB, CAN etc. reducing the gap between Microprocessors but still maintaining their unique identity by only focusing on controlling and not on number crunching (for which micro-processors are more suitable). The MCUs allow the designers to create head room for future expansion, as they take up some load of main processor.

Embedded devices have been penetrated in all markets where real time performance is vital. Micro-controllers have given significant contribution for this penetration. For example: communication market, surveillance market, biometric devices, micro-finance devices, medical instruments, automotive market and robotics.

Rich feature sets
Rich feature set is an imperative in the MCU market. What should one watch out for?

Even though rich feature set is imperative in MCU market, one should watch out on technical front for following features of MCU:
* Functionality coverage.
* Functionality coverage vs. Bill of Material
* Performance in terms of MIPS
* MIPS Vs. power consumption
* Simplicity in design and board layouts
* Standard compliance for low noise emission and temperature control
* robustness and consistency
* pin multiplexing of interfaces

Other non technical point to watch for is price announcements v/s feature set. The announced low price may be for least feature product and once you choose the MCU with all the features, it may be out of budget for the product

While choosing an MCU
Let us study the key factors that influence choice of MCUs today.

According to Patel, customers looks for following factors of MCUs which influence the choice of MCU.

Price: In small applications, MCU price is a main contributor of BOM and reduced price of the same reduces BOM to a large extent in mass production. For example Built-in peripherals – significantly reduce cost and space. Also, prices of IDE licenses may also affect the decision making of customer.

Performance: Cache memory or internal memory size – significantly impacts performance, similarly Memory width and speed

Availability: Availability is one of the main factor which board designers take care of because slight delay in product launch can result in significant market share erosion for customer. Also Availability in industrial and commercial temperature grades and through distribution channels.

Life span: The life span of the MCU depends on number of years a MCU manufacturer determines to continue support for it as a main stream product. More the number of years, higher the chances of selection. It also includes roadmap for future upgrades

Power consumption: This applies to battery operated devices. Lower the power consumption, longer the recharging/replacement time. There is a trade off between speed vs. power consumption

IDE support: These days products have become more sophisticated, while at the same time the life cycle has become shorter. It is very important to have a equally sophisticated IDE to speed up the development cycle and reduce time-to-market.

Technical support: History has shown that excellent products with not up to the mark technical support has never been successful. It is very essential for MCU provider to provide support at design and development stage of product development.

The other important aspect is about the track record of a semiconductor vendor in deliveries and post silicon bugs/issues reported.

Why are low-power MCUs in demand?
Now, it is time to determine the chief reasons for the demand in low-power MCUs.

According to Patel, in today’s consumer market of electronics and communications, handheld devices like the mobile phones and PDAs are mostly operated with batteries. The battery life is becoming a major concern for most of the portable devices because they run several different types of applications hence a demand for low power MCUs.

Also, designs are becoming smaller, and the weight and size of power supply/batteries is impacting the MCU choice and power consumption. Another trend is toward fanless designs to reduce noise and cost, and at the same manage thermals in smaller form factors.

For example, the MSP430 from Texas Instruments is an ultra-low-power MCU, which is suitable for devices where power saving is crucial. Those MCUs which has capability to handle data with CPU intervention participate in family of low-power MCUs.

In order to support low power functionality, MCUs support several power down modes for battery consumption. For example,
* Turning off CPU leaving every thing else functional.
* Running only low frequency clock oscillator and the peripherals running on it.
* To individually and automatically turning on and off peripherals when needed thus saving power being consumed by peripheral.

Applications
MSP430 ultra-low power MCU from Texas Instruments: used in wireless, medical and low power industrial applications.
Atmel’s ultra-low per MCU: used in Zigbee, security and keyless entry applications which spend significant amount of their time in sleep mode.

8- vs. 16-bit MCUs
Affordable prices are among the reasons that the Asian region is witnessing a migration to 16-bit architectures. Then, why still have 8-bit MCUs?

Patel advised that although 16 bit MCUs are available at low prices in Asian market, the primary reason for selecting 8-bit MCUs are as follows:
* Design simplicity
* Easy up-gradation to 16 or 32 bit architecture
* Cost effectiveness
* Development tools
* Easy to adopt

Finally, let us have a look at eInfochips’ roadmap in the embedded domain. Patel said that eInfochips is more focused on RISC based higher end MCU based products in streaming media, industrial, avionics, security and surveillance domains.

“The primary focus is on 32-bit MCUs, but 8- and 16-bit MCUs are used for specific applications like medical, automotive, micro finance handheld devices, health monitors, and home automation functions in the overall product. With more than 250 engineers in eInfochips embedded divisions, we work on most semiconductor vendor’s MCUs.”

Dexcel on growth drivers for Indian embedded design industry


It is my endeavor to write about semiconductors, solar/PV, EDA. FPGAs, embedded, etc., and related companies and solutions via this blog. One of the pleasures of writing a semicon blog is in being able to connect with and make a whole lot of friends from different countries, cultures, and companies, as well as bloggers.

One such gentleman is Ravinder Gujral or Ravi, as he’s popularly called, Director – Business Development, Dexcel Electronics Designs Pvt. Ltd. Dexcel, based very much in Bangalore, India, is among one of the emerging companies in the embedded space in the country. Ravi contacted me, like several others, via my blog! Likewise, I was elated to find myself a new friend and reader! Later, we met during Altera’s SOPC event, where Dexcel was exhibiting as well.

Dexcel is an electronics design house with capabilities in embedded systems development, firmware Designs and development, DSP processors based designs, imaging software, device drivers, Linux porting, system level designs and development, application and automation software, development of audio and video codec, telecom related stacks, board designs and FPGA based digital designs services, and providing end-to-end solutions to customers.

Dexcel has an alliance and partnership with Altera (ACAP and DSP partner), and with Analog Devices (DSP collaborator), Texas Instruments (DSP third party Network Member), Actel (solution partner), Atmel (AVR 8-Bit RISC Consultants), Montavista Linux developer, etc. Quite impressive!

Estimate of Indian embedded industry
Naturally, our discussion veered toward embedded. Providing his estimate of the embedded design industry in India, Gujral said as per the survey conducted by the India Semiconductor Association (ISA) and Frost & Sullivan, the projected Indian semiconductor and embedded design industry will grow from $3.25 billion in 2005 to $14.42 billion in 2010 and to $43.07 billion in 2015. The Indian design organizations are moving beyond simple labor-cost arbitrage to become true contributors to product innovation.

Going forward, it is important to keep an eye on the drivers for embedded design. The main growth drivers for embedded software in the coming period will be mobile communications, military applications, networking devices and providing more intelligence and connectivity to consumer devices.

Gujral said: “The explosion of embedded devices is made possible mainly due to the rapid growth of semiconductor chips each year, and semiconductor devices becoming faster, cheaper and less power hungry. As the Indian domestic market is growing rapidly, this growth trend will continue. Simultaneously, there are technical challenges to design such products and services, and the availability of technical qualified resources has become more important.”

Localizing product designs and manufacturing
Given that India’s strength has been in embedded, would the biggest growth factor for embedded come from the localization of product design and manufacturing from India?

Indeed, it is! Gujral noted: “The growth factor for embedded companies will come from localization of product design and manufacturing from India. However, we should be doing well in localization of product design, rather than in manufacturing. Indian design engineers are strong in product innovation and design processes, while on the other hand, our manufacturing ecosystem is not as competitive as China.”

Going forward, India should be focused on fine tuning its design processes and best practices to become more efficient and productive, compared to counterpart in the US and Europe. “We have to develop strong domain technical knowledge to bring more innovation in product development,” added Gujral.

NI LabView solves embedded and multicore problems!


Some time ago, National Instruments (NI) introduced LabView 8.6. LabVIEW is a very data flow programming tool! And inherently, it has always been parallel processing!

Take note folks, as parallel is now increasingly becoming regular! And your multi-core problems could well be solved by NI’s LabView.

Given the ongoing recession, interestingly, NI projects double digit growth in 2009 for the region comprising India, Arabia and Russia. Jayaram Pillai, MD, India, Russia & Arabia, NI, says that these places have been traditionally strong in localization. The key is: what can NI’s technology bring in for indigenization!

Pillai notes: “We have always talked about virtual instrumentation. How can you bring the local content into the system?” NI’s LabView’s ability has generally been to create a program out of a non-program. “Images are your natural language. We feel engineers can express themselves using graphical language,” he adds.

LabView inherently meant for parallel programming
Most embedded systems provide quick and easy solutions. NI is trying to put electronics into every problem that it confronts. About 98 percent of the processing environments are used elsewhere, other than the PCs. What embedded can do today is tremendous! NI’s LabView is inherently meant for parallel programming.

Pillai says: “When you are running two cores, it is important how you share the data between the cores. We have multi-core for Windows. We can do multi-core programming for embedded as well.” NI’s tools perform multi-core programming, which itself is a software program.

Besides targeting particular silicon and other resources, there are other problems or areas to deal with, such as test maths, state chart and data flow programming, etc. NI has built all of these components into LabView 8.6 — things such as programming MCUs, FPGAs, Power PCs, etc., can be handled.

Solve embedded problems by developing simpler systems!
Coming back to embedded systems, there are two requisite steps — programming the electronics and programming the system. “We see ourselves getting into the space of solving multi-core problems,” adds Pillai. “Everything today is software enabled. We intend doing for T&M what spreadsheet has done for financial analysis.”

Definitely, software is the instrument in virtual instrumentation. “It means, to solve 98 percent problems of the embedded applications, there is a need to make the development of embedded systems even simpler,” he contends, and rightly so!

“As we went higher in abstraction, we found that we were able to solve more problems. You’ve got to get into a high level of abstraction, which can be done by LabView, called system design platform. LabView today, is the platform for test and embedded,” notes Pillai.

In grahical system design, there is a need to leverage and collaborate in parallel. Graphical programming harnesses multi-core processors. LabView has also been the runaway software tool for DAQ and instrument control. As a result, more and more people can now do embedded programming.

Pillai advices: “If you want to build systems, you need to integrate NI design tools with third-party design tools to share the data. The integration of data has to be seamless.”

Benefits of graphical system design
Graphical system design should do for embedded what PCs did for desktops. “We are a graphical design company and are now building systems,” he adds. The concepts of graphical system design include design, prototype and deploy.

So, what are the product lifecycle benefits of graphical system design? There are multiple hardware systems priced at different cost points based on performance. A LabView user can install the software into an expensive system for testing purposes, and later, deploy on to a lower platform.

Legacy problem and major paradigm shift
Sharing of data between cores is key! Parallel programming in sequential does not make sense. Rather, data flow programming makes a lot of sense. However, there is a legacy problem as far as multi-core programming is concerned. That is: how do you shift so much of the sequential programming knowledge into data flow? This will require a major paradigm shift.

Besides, there are a lot of sequential tools as well. There is a need to integrate all of that into multi-core. So far, multi-core problems have been addressed in test and embedded systems. It is still on in gaming, though! Maybe, this too will be cracked in a matter of time!

To all of my Chinese friends, Kung Hei Fat Choy!

What the semiconductor industry should do in 2009!


What should the global semiconductor companies do to combat the current downturn? Is the lack of exit options in semiconductors really stunting innovation, especially in EDA? Is the Indian semiconductor industry really mature enough to enable product development? Do we have an ecosystem that encourages product development?

These are just some of the questions buzzing in my mind, and within the industry. While there is maybe an answer to the first one, and maybe no ready answer for the second one, I would probably agree with what Dr. H.V. Ananda former managing director of Synplicity said to me in August 2007, that the Indian ecosystem will not enable faster product development cycles!

At least, I haven’t seen any good or great Indian company or startup from India in the recent years to accept that we have learned the art of developing products! I am still waiting and sincerely wish that this situation changes very soon!

I recently got into a discussion with Abhi Talwalkar, the President & CEO, LSI Corp., post the 22nd international conference on Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) design and the 8th international conference on Embedded Systems in New Delhi, India, and quizzed him about LSI’s thoughts on these and much more.

Three things to do for semicon firms
First up, what should the global semiconductor industry do in 2009? If there are three key things for semiconductor companies to do in this downturn, what would those be?

According to the LSI president, semiconductor companies should carefully manage their expenses and conserve cash. They should also develop conservative financial plans, which in turn will help them stabilize their balance sheets.

“Companies with strong financial capabilities and strong balance sheet will look to become stronger through this downturn. They should try to accelerate their market share through innovative practices.

“This should also be an opportunity for all companies to get closer to the customers, focus on their strategies and collaborate with them to help them come out stronger through this recession. Agility to innovate and meet with the customer requirements will help companies in developing a clearer focus on R &D and stronger executions,” he said.

Does India have a product development ecosystem?
I still don’t quite believe that India boasts a product development ecosystem, and am waiting for this to happen! On being asked this question, Talwalkar said that a product development ecosystem is dependent on the maturity of the end markets.

He added: “The Indian market is growing and will continue to grow both in terms of consumer and enterprise demand. This growth in demand will enhance the product development ecosystem as it will rationalize the cost of development. India still needs to fill in a lot of gaps to have a stronger product development ecosystem within semiconductor marketplace.”

Continuing in the same vein, why haven’t more startups happened in India, especially in semiconductors, especially in the recent years?

Referring to the ecosystem angle, Abhi Talwalkar noted that the success of startups is dependent on the existing ecosystem. “The growth of end markets will continue to encourage local ecosystem, especially in regards to native systems companies in areas of semiconductors. Currently, the system development is in its infancy in India, and with the growth of system MNC in India, it will grow.

The third point I had was: Is the lack of exit options in semiconductors really stunting innovation, especially in EDA? As I said, this is a very tricky one, and well, there has really been no answer to this one, as yet. Maybe, the answers will come in and be clearer as the year goes on!

The global semiconductor industry has had several headlines related to job cuts in the recent months. All of these layoffs have made me wonder whether there is going to be a drop in R&D, globally, due to the recession! If not, then why all of these layoffs? This is a point I’ve raised earlier!

Talwalkar said: “There will be drop in R&D with reduction in the top lines across the industry. There will be reduction in R&D budgets as companies will look to manage their expenses carefully as well as balance sheets.”

Outlook 2009: India and global
Coming down to 2009, what is LSI’s outlook for the Indian and global semiconductor industry?

Abhi Talwarkar said: “In the near term, the MNC India design centers will have to play significant roles. Their role is under appreciated and there are opportunities for them to grow further in the current economic scenario. The captive capability will grow as the cost structure and talent availability remains favorable here.

As for the global semiconductor industry, he added that the near term outlook will be challenging given the downturn and the rapid softening of product demand, especially in PCs, handsets, servers, consumer electronics, etc.

“In the long term, there will be positive growth in the semiconductor industry as the newer technologies get adopted in new product categories, — automotive, healthcare, solar, consumer electronics, telecommunication infrastructure, etc., as well as the continued growth of electronic products, especially in India, China, Eastern European and BRIC countries,” he added.

Several analysts have offered contrasting dates for an industry recovery. Even I am asked this question by several friends. My take is: do try and wait out this year, and consolidate, and try to continue to innovate, and prepare for the next industry upturn!

Perhaps, it is quite in line with what Malcolm Penn, chairman and CEO, Future Horizons, said recently, “Now, more than ever, is the time to work smarter not give up; the market will rebound, better start planning for that now!” Hope the industry is listening!

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