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Embedded Systems Conference - Boston 2004

Boston 2004 by Embedded Systems Conference
Once again, loyal readers, it's time for me to sally on, sally forth, and walk the narrow corridors of the Embedded Systems Conference. So come, read more, see, feel, and taste the experience that is the Embedded Systems Conference of Boston.

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This year's exhibits were from September 14 to 16 in the Hynes Convention Center. Living right in Boston, it was ridiculously easy for me to attend this year's conference (I'd long ago abandoned Silicon Valley for the nostalgia of New England.).

Now, before I get into the Conference, I'm gonna lay on you some of my present views of the Embedded Systems Industry - views that my Market Consulting clients pay good money for(!). First of all, you must understand that we are in a mature industry. By that, I mean that things like Flash memory and C compilers are no longer news; they are, instead, simply standard requirements for any microcontroller or DSP manufacturer. Also, unless you're building something huge, process technology shrinks have stopped at 0.25µ, so the race for tighter space has ended. And if your chip design process isn't modular, then it's time to call that chick from the morgue in "Law and Order" to explain the cause of death to Lenny Briscoe (I play the psychiatrist, although I look more like Richard Belzer).

It's also understood that we work in a cyclical industry. For the semiconductor manufacturers - of which I am a battle-hardened veteran - customer success determines our business. Everyone is overworked.

Gone are the fads as well. You say 'ciao' to any company that wants to network your television to your microwave to your coffeepot to Uranus. Especially if they want to do it through my home power lines. Embedded Java has it's place, and I'm thankful that it's staying there. Of course, none of this should be new to many of you. I've been ranting against these "solutions without a problem" for years.

So, this year's Conference is now back to basics. But, as you'll soon see, were some sobering entries into the emerging market of Homeland Security.

O.K., on with the show...

First, let me start by telling you about the company that most impressed me at the Conference, and that's a company called Ember of Boston, Massachusetts USA. Ember is into a new wireless protocol called ZigBee (IEEE 802.15.4), whose target applications include remote battery powered sensors. ZigBee is, well, named after the zig-zag pattern that bees make when they communicate. Don't worry, this will all be clear in a moment.

Target applications for ZigBee include lighting controls, HVAC, medical sensing, automatic meter reading, yada yada yada. You'll notice that this is the same list of applications that every new entry into Embedded Systems claims is going to take over the market. Yeah, right. But this one has a difference.

Why am I impressed by ZigBee? Well, let's compare it to it's closest competitor, Bluetooth. If you wanted to build a remote battery powered Bluetooth node, you'd need at least 250K of memory for the code and stack, and your 720KB/s will get you a transmission range of about ten meters - maybe. If there are no cordless phones, VCRs, or other FCC Part 15 devices around. For your effort, you'll get about a week of battery life. Now, compare that to ZigBee. While this is a lower-speed wireless protocol that's targeted at transmission speeds of 20-250KB/s, it has a transmission range of well over 50 meters. Battery life is amazing - two years. And here's a figure that will make the true professionals reading this quiver - it only needs 32K of system resources. Yep, Loyal Readers, this is simple, effective, and very, very practical .

Market Name ZigBee
Application Focus: Monitoring &
Wide Area
Voice & Data
Web, Email,
Data Exchange
System Resources: 4KB - 32KB 16MB+ 1MB+ 250KB+
Battery Life (days): 100 - 1,000+ 1-7 less than 5 1 - 7
Network Size: 264 1 32 7
Data Rate: 20 kbits/s
40 kbits/s
64 - 128+ 11 Mbits/s
54 Mbits/s
1 Mbits/s
100+ 1,000+ 100 10
Success Metrics: Reliability, Power, Cost Reach, Quality Speed, Flexibility Cost, Convenience

ZigBee communicates through the wireless network in much the same way as bees. Bees will communicate with other bees in a zig-zag dance - a form of communication that tells other bees where the pollen is. The other bees will mimic the first bee's dance to the other bees in the hive, who will then mimic the dance to others. So, in a short time, the entire hive knows where the pollen is.

Ember's EM2420 is their first ZigBee chip. It includes data encryption (take that, Bluetooth!) and it's presently in a number of good, solid applications (not fad apps) such as home control, medical sensing, and asset tracking (similar to RFID, but more powerful). Ember has also penetrated the emerging Homeland Security market. Right now, there are ships out there with little ZigBee nodes manufactured by RAE Systems with Ember chips mated to ammonia sensors sitting in their cargo holds. Say you've got a stowaway, a bad guy, sitting in the hull. Well, even for a lowlife terrorist nature's gonna call. And when he wets the deck, Ember lets the crew know there's an undesirable via ZigBee's unobtrusive wireless communication. The nodes just sit dormant until they receive a signal telling them to wake up and transmit their data. The wake-up signal is transmitted through the entire network. Soon, data is being sent through the entire hive - uh, ZigBee network - as each node behaves as a master and a slave in relaying the information through the network. Oh, RAE Systems also uses Ember's ZigBee chips with chemical sensors and radiation sensors.

Ember is also involved in what I call the "paranoid parent" market. Check this out - you're sitting at home, watching Donald Trump's Apprentice , and you get that nagging feeling that you've left the garage door up, or the upstairs window is open, or the porch light is on. Well, all these things can have inexpensive battery-powered ZigBee nodes, and from your hand-held remote, all these little bees will tell you that you left the garage door open and that it's your son's fault. (Well, maybe not that last piece of info...)

Here's a quiz for you - in how many James Bond films do you see Bond crawling through ventilation ducts as he enters/exists the building? Well, you better not try that at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. As Venkat Bahl, Ember's VP of Marketing explained to me, ZigBee sensors with Ember chips monitor the vents in that hotel, sensing for "dirty bombs". (Sorry, Ember's chips will not find the money you lost playing Texas Hold 'em )

Ember has over 130 customers. They presently have a two-chip solution, using their EM2420 ZigBee controller matched with an Atmel microcontroller. Their next product will be a single-chip solution based upon Cambridge Consultant Ltd's XAP2 core.

Oh, Cambridge Consultants of Cambridge , UK, was at ESC, and the XAP2 core is one of my favs for embedded ASIC development. The XAP2 is a Harvard architecture processor specifically designed for ultra low power consumption. Power reduction design techniques include plenty of single cycle instructions, with instruction processing optimized for low power. The core's sleep mode is so low that in some implementations 10-year battery lifetimes from a single button cell are not uncommon. The core also provides powerful arithmetic functions, including hardware multiply and divide operations, and a single-cycle 32-bit barrel shifter . I spent some quality beer time with Chris Turner and Luke Hares of CCL, and between discussions of business and politics, we all agreed that appreciated the XAP2, and British beer (I'm partial to Stella, brewed in Belgium and sold all over the place in the U.K.).

One of the coolest applications I'd ever seen at the show was another example of how life imitates Star Trek. InHand Electronics is a manufacturer of low power board level platforms. Now, this is an industry that I normally don't report on. However, this device is just too cool, and InHand deserves some kudos for their technical support in the fight against terror... anyway, remember the Universal Translator from Star Trek? Well, a company called VoxTec has made a device called a Phraselator . It is, exactly, a Star Trek universal translator, and it's based upon InHand's credit-card sized Fingertip3â„¢ hand held OEM platform. The Phraselator is MIL-hardened and is presently used by our coalition troops in Iraq to translate between Arabic or Kurdish, and English. Ultra cool toy, that's being used for a very important, and sobering, application.

I ran into my friend Isaak Grinberg from Phyton , makers of very high quality emulators. Phyton now supports the Texas Instruments MSP430 low power 16-bit microcontroller with an emulator and a compiler - the first commercial compiler to support the MSP430 outside of IAR. The emulator, called the Project-430 supports the entire range of MSP430 microcontrollers. It's a complex, high-end emulator and debugger that connects to your PC via USB (rhyme alert!) with an impressive array of features, including very complex breakpoints and nice, deep trace buffer.

Good old reliable Atmel was at the show. Atmel is also part of the ZigBee alliance, with a their Z-Linkâ„¢ transceiver and controller chips based upon their AVR microcontroller. Unfortunately I wasn't able to tear the Atmel ZigBee engineer away from his other duties. Atmel also announced five new Mega AVR microcontrollers at the conference, with up to 64K of Flash, up to 1K of EEPROM, and is available in up to 100-pin packages.

Motorola Semiconductor - ah, I mean Freescale - and by that I mean "the Company Previously Known as Motorola" was at the show. Sort of. Well, they didn't technically have a booth. They did have this nice large area with couches and coffee (see photo). While I've always enjoyed great relations with Motor... Free... uh, this company - for the past 18 months their press contacts with me have been spotty to poor. Needless to say, while there wasn't a PR representative there to talk to me, I'd like to thank them for the couch and coffee... although I don't really know who I should thank.

CMX was there and I'm happy to say that their VP of Sales and Marketing J.R. Rodrigues is an inspiration to everyone on the Atkins diet , having faithfully stuck to that diet for almost two years now. Chuck Behrmann was there, too - damned right he was, because he lives in Florida and if you've been watching The Weather Channel you know that Florida' hurricanes have been battering Florida around more than a Bill Clinton intern . Now, CMX has been very serious about Embedded Internet since it was first conceived by Al Gore(?). Their entries into the embedded TCP/IP market includes CMX-MicroNetâ„¢ - a very, very small footprint TCP/IP stack that packs a lot of performance into a very tight footprint. CMX announced the availability of a NAT (Network Address Translation) Add-On Option for CMX TCP/IPâ„¢, the grown-up version of their stack. The CMX TCP/IP NAT Add-On Option supports Network Address Port Translation (NAPT) and Basic NAT. A network will need the NAT Add-On Option when an embedded endpoint may have multiple Ethernet interfaces, but sharing a single Internet-visible IP address is convenient or more secure. (See, I told you they were serious!)

Accelerated Technology introduced its Nucleusâ„¢ EDGE software development environment. This IDE is about as complex as you can get. We're talking high end here. The Nucleus EDGE software environment contains an advanced project manager, editor and builder, and automates the build process. Developers can multiple build environments by specifying the compiler and build options, allowing for a completely fine tuned build environment. Features of ATI's XRAY Debugger and their code|labâ„¢ Debug software round out a very powerful development kit. I also got to talk to ATI's charming Charity Mason , who has the really cool title of "Creative Team Lead". The way she describes it, ATI's a fun place to work and she's got an incredible job that's almost as fun as mine...!

Anyway, that's all I have time for. I'm going to close by mentioning that this Boston show was surprisingly crowded and many exhibitors told me that they were very happy with the quality of the attendees. It's nice to see the industry settle down to the fundamentals, and get back to basics . Yeah, we're in a cyclical industry, and everyone's overworked (aren't you?), but for the most part we're a friendly gang and at shows like this you're more likely to see smiles than frowns.

Oh, now look at what I did, I went and wrote something corny. That means it's time for me to End this.

Bill Giovino
Executive Editor


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