Embedded technology develops robust commercial flavor

Embedded systems have until now been the poor cousins of the information technology world toiling in obscurity while their more glamorous PC relatives primp and preen in the spotlight. But a new generation of 32-bit chips with 64-bit processors just on the horizon are set to drive embedded technology to the forefront of IT development.

Embedded technology allows developers to build computer chips into a variety of devices such as cellular telephones and car engines in the commercial world and unmanned vehicles and missiles in the defense world. Such embedded systems lack hard disk drives large pools of memory and other standard trappings of PCs. But applications written to those chips can provide the intelligence necessary to collect data or guide motions. The more powerful the chip the more advanced an application can become.

"I think we are truly in the middle of a revolution driven by a dramatic fall in the cost and size of microprocessors and the emergence of serious micro- processing power " said John Carbone vice president of marketing for Green Hills Software Inc. Santa Barbara Calif. "This is revolutionary compared to what was available just a few years ago. Now people want to use embedded in everything to make appliances and systems as intelligent as possible."

Government should only benefit from this industry sources said. At the least government will enjoy the same benefits everyone else will gain from the evolutionary leap in embedded applications. For mobile users the cellular phone will become a self-contained communications center capable of paging e-mailing faxing and even browsing the World Wide Web. And office workers will find a host of new ways to use printers fax machines copiers and phones.

Leading-edge technology users such as NASA and the Defense Department will have significantly broader capabilities available to them. Anything requiring greater sensor sensitivity and real-time processing of data will be helped by the new embedded systems.

NASA for example embedded a radiation-hardened version of a reduced instruction-set computer (RISC) chip in the unmanned Martian lander so that controllers could guide its landing and maneuvering on the surface of Mars. The space agency also uses embedded systems to gather real-time data in wind tunnel testing of aircraft.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is already in the third year of a five-year embeddable-technology development program.

"The military demands are forever increasing automated processing in response to improved sensor technology mission changes and reductions in manpower " said Jo Munoz manager of the DARPA program. "As a result they are facing having to do more processing with the same size weight and power envelopes. Increased use of unmanned vehicles will expand embedded-system insertion opportunities."

Volume Business

Despite their apparent second-tier status embedded systems have long been the volume leaders of the electronic world. Desktop PCs may number in the hundreds of millions but they contain only a fraction of the processors that have been cranked out each year by the world's chipmakers. By some estimates no more than 10 percent of the total goes into desktop and higher-end systems.

"The vast majority are used in embedded applications " said Jim Turley an analyst with MicroDesign Resources Sunnyvale Calif. and senior editor of Microprocessor Report. "And as fast as the PC market is growing embedded uses are growing faster."

Demand for 64-bit processors is showing the largest percentage growth but as in the desktop world this is a start-up market in which the volumes shipped are still very small. Shipments of 32-bit processors on the other hand are both "large and robust " and growth is 15 to 20 percent a year "depending on who you speak to " Turley said.

The embedded market is also still a big draw for chips that have disappeared from the desktop world. Demand for 16-bit processors grinds on at a relatively sedate - but still healthy - rate of 6 to 9 percent a year. And the embedded universe provides a home for 8-bit and 4-bit processors - devices the desktop world has not seen in abundance since the days of the first PCs.

But it is the insertion of 32-bit technology that is so radically changing the nature of embedded systems because for the first time these chips bring high-level power into the embedded equation.

"We're seeing a really massive growth in intelligence in embedded technology " said Joe Salvador senior marketing manager with the Integrated Processor Division of National Semiconductor Inc. "And that's a distinct change from say the 8-bit world of the past."

That intelligence enables a range of applications that could not be considered before. Products such as a multifunction fax/copier/printer that can simultaneously and automatically identify an incoming fax print it and store a PC-generated report for printing are now possible.

The new generation of embedded processors also provides the computational power needed for things such as distributed communication switches which can be placed much closer to people's homes than the conventional central office model allows. This will enable providers to deliver higher bandwidth communications to their customers.

One of the biggest markets for 32-bit embedded processors in the future is expected to be the combination cellular phone. Available now in early models from suppliers such as Nokia they are expensive and limited in functions. Within a few years however as 32-bit embedded technology itself gets less expensive the price is expected to fall into the regular consumer ranges and the phone will sport a full range of voice and data functions. Multitude of Options

Unlike the desktop PC market where Intel Corp.'s architecture has such a dominant hold the embedded universe has a wide range of processors from which designers can choose.

Motorola Inc.'s venerable 68000 family holds the largest share of the 32-bit embedded market according to industry watchers but Intel's x86 and i960 processors also have a sizable share. Silicon Graphics Inc.'s MIPS and Hitachi's SuperH RISC lines so far have locks on the Nintendo and Sega computer game applications which are major consumer drivers of the embedded market.

Up-and-coming competitors include other RISC processors such as Motorola's version of the PowerPC and Advanced RISC Machines' ARM processor design which has been licensed by a slew of companies around the world and which is now seemingly the de facto processor for use in cellular phones. National Semiconductor is pitting its version of the 486 processor against Motorola's 68000 and Intel's x86 families.

The nature of embedded-systems programming makes it easier for users to take advantage of this range of options.

In the desktop-computing world application programs are large and therefore expensive to port to other processors. In embedded computing however memory is at a premium and programs tend to be very tightly written. Recompiling 50 000 lines of code of an embedded program is a relatively trivial task compared with what would be required for today's giant PC programs.

But there are some drawbacks. Because 32-bit processors are much more dependent on software to deliver functionality than were the earlier generations of processors the traditional ways of designing embedded systems are changing.

The applications themselves are much more complex which makes it difficult for developers to write custom code for every application as they were accustomed to doing said David Larrimore vice president of marketing for embedded-software developer Wind River Systems Inc. "That is pushing the industry toward greater reusability of code which in turn has pushed greater use of languages such as C C++ and particularly in the government Ada."

The Java Phenomenon

The change is also why the phenomenon of Java an Internet-based programming language that has caught the attention of the modern Internet Age is percolating down into the embedded world.

Java based on the popular C language is a higher-level language than most others in that developers need not worry about the intricacies of writing to particular computers. That means developers such as NewMonics Inc. do not need so many complicated procedures to handle the life cycles of products that use Java said Kelvin Nilsen president of NewMonics Ames Iowa.

"The main reason why [vendors] are looking with so much interest at Java is that people are expensive and there just aren't that many people around who can write decent embedded code " Nilsen said.

That is certainly why DARPA is looking at using Java for its development of embedded systems through a $1.3 million contract with NewMonics.

One major drawback of Java is that it does not lend itself well to the type of "hard" real-time mission-critical applications for which the military is looking to use embedded technologies. NewMonics will develop those tools for possible use in a variety of applications such as data communications telecommunications and missile-guidance systems. But NewMonics does not expect to be shipping those kinds of Java tools until the middle of next year Nilsen said.

The Internet itself is also encroaching on the embedded scene with embedded Web servers and applications - such as hooking up printers and test instruments through the Internet - already being developed. That means Java is being considered for delivering as well as writing programs although here the future is less clear. Green Hills Software's Carbone believes Java will most likely be used in "hybrid" versions of embedded applications in concert with other languages such as C++ especially where such applications are to be downloaded regularly across a network to remote intelligent devices.

The increasing complexity of applications is also pushing the need for more flexible true-multitasking embedded operating systems.

And with developers pushed to deliver products faster the market has changed dramatically.

"A few years ago some 70 percent of all the operating systems were proprietary " Wind River's Larrimore said. "In a couple of years I expect them to be reduced to as little as 20 percent of the total."

Instead the majority could be like Wind River's own VxWorks operating system which provides for a range of functionality and then is optimized for a particular processor. Larrimore said his company supports around 20 processor families including all the major players.

The Coming of Windows CE

Additionally developers may begin to work through the application program interfaces they are so familiar with in the Microsoft Corp./Intel world. APIs essentially establish a standard way for an application to interact with an operating system or another application. APIs may become more important to embedded developers particularly as Microsoft begins to push its Windows CE operating system which is a stripped-down version of its desktop system into the embedded world. Microsoft first introduced CE in handheld consumer products last year.

Microsoft has traditionally had a major presence in embedded systems through DOS and Windows products although these operating systems have had their share of problems because of limitations for real-time computing and their relatively large memory footprints.

Windows CE on the other hand comes as a true real-time 32-bit multitasking operating system that can fit into ROM which embedded systems generally require. Windows CE is already available for major processor families such as Hitachi's SuperH Advanced RISC Machines' ARM and Silicon Graphics' MIPS R4000.

"Microsoft has upped its profile dramatically for CE and I think it will be tunneling down into all the real-time operating system markets over the next few months " said Dick Eppel president of Annasoft Systems Inc. San Diego which recently signed an agreement with Microsoft allowing it to license CE for embedded applications.

For some people Eppel expects that the decision to use CE will be strategic because Windows CE is supported by so many industry vendors.

DSP Developments

For the not-too-distant future the 32-bit revolution in embedded systems could be overtaken by an even more dramatic development in digital signal processors (DSPs) one that has a very direct relevance to government users.

Unlike microprocessors program- mable DSPs are specifically designed to handle real-world audio and video signals. Microprocessors need peripheral logic and memory chips to do the same thereby increasing the price and complexity of any system design. The kind of "front-end" processing that DSPs are now called on to do - manipulating signals into digital data that can be handed on to embedded computers - has traditionally been done by expensive unwieldy slow and relatively bulky analog components.

Improvements in software are making it much easier to use DSPs to look for different signal frequencies very quickly which is an important development for sonar radar and other aerospace and military systems.

Because of that said John Hartman the military/aerospace business development manager corporate at Analog Devices Inc. the compound annual growth for DSPs in military and aerospace is around 26 percent a year. And because DSPs use the same languages and development tools as microprocessors there is little pain involved for development teams in designing systems that use both DSPs and microprocessors.

The trend here according to MicroDesign's Turley is to try to reduce the power consumption for the combination of the two kinds of chips. By 2000 Turley expects most embedded-chip manufacturers to have at least one single-chip microprocessor/DSP hybrid in their arsenal of products. This is "one of the major trends" in embedded systems Turley said.

It is also a trend that the government should have a big hand in guiding. Unlike elsewhere in the embedded market where government users generally have to wait for developments to spiral down to them from the consumer market the government is in the driver's seat with DSPs.

"On core DSP technology and performance it's the military that pushes the leading edge no matter what people say about commercial products " Hartman said.

-- Robinson is a free-lance writer based in Falls Church Va.

* * * * *

AT A GLANCE

Status: Embedded applications are benefiting from increased processing power and more commercial technology.

Issues: The potential use of Java and Windows CE may change how embedded applications are written.

Outlook: Excellent. Advances fit well with the requirements of many government applications.

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