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Archive for July, 2010

Small Embedded Computing Show is Rich in Technical Tidbits

Friday, July 30th, 2010

RTECC Portland, OR 29Jul10Here’s the sitch: A colleague calls you in the morning about a small, 6 hour long, local embedded computing show. You decide to attend, but arrive in the middle of a technical session. What do you do? Attend the remainder of the session or tour the small exhibitor floor? 

I chose the later and talked with as many exhibitors as possible. It turned out to be time well spend, since most exhibitors have a good understanding of the technology behind their products. Here are the “tidbits” of technology and design that I picked up while attending the “Real-Time & Embedded Computing Conference” in Portland, OR.

TidBit #1

Power-over-Ethernet technology alleviates the need for extra power cables to areas that require peripherals like a display, e.g. areas in supermarkets, vehicles and airplanes. The benefits for PoE are well understood. But how much power does PoE actually provide and why?

Originally, Power-over-Ethernet (PoE) delivered 14 watts. Today, PoE provides 30w over Cat 5/7 cable with a future goal of 45w over Cat 7, according to Thomas Winslow, Western Area Sales Manager for PFU Systems, a Fujitsu company. Why the increase in PoE power, especially in a market where lower power is the guiding design principle? Winslow believes that Intel – among others – is pushing the 45w version of PoE. Here’s the reasoning:

–> Intel’s embedded Atom processor (~5w) + control/video chipset (~15w) + LCD driver and peripherals (~15 to 20w)  = ~ 40w or greater

Why is the chipset wattage higher than the power consumption of the processor? One reason is the functionality. The Input/Output Controller chipset also contains the graphic engines for many common applications. On a PC, where graphics are a high priority, the “chipset” contains fairly sophisticated graphics functionality. When you move to the server world, data transfer becomes the priority. “There is no real time graphics to worry about, explained Winslow. That’s is why the data throughput on a server chipset is faster than on a PC where video manipulations are consuming most of the power.

TidBit #2

Did you know that the size and cost of the memory modules are the determining factor for the size of the board? Winslow, from PFU Systems, explained that error-correcting code (ECC) memory that fits into the smaller form fact boards, like a Type 2 COM Express, is three times as expensive as the same type of memory in a larger Type 1 COM Express board. Aside from the cost of miniaturizing the ECC memory for a small footprint, there is also the challenge of dealing with the increased heat from the smaller memory.

TidBit #3

Carrier boards allow the customer to customize the inputs/outputs of a board while incorporating a commercial off-the-shelf (COTS), standard form factor (SFF) daughter board from an OEM, e.g., a PoE board mounting onto carrier board. Ahe carrier board also allows the customer to add their own IP, as well as upgrade processor technology in the future, e.g., from Intel’s Celeron to a new Dual Core system.

TidBit #4

Last one from PFU Systems: Many embedded computing providers use only standard chips, like processors, memory, interfaces, etc. In other words, they don’t have any ASICs or ASSPs. This means that these companies don’t need to deal with the headaches caused in the creation, maintenance and supply of device drivers. Since all the components are standard, every operating system provides all the needed drivers. That’s a sweet deal.

TidBit #5

How do you debug multicore systems? This is a major issue, according to Jerry Flake, US Sales Manager for Lauterback Development Tools. The company makes embedded debug systems and supports both ARM and Intel processors. For ARM processors, the answer to the debug question is found in Coresight, a new technology used for multicore debugging through the use of trace macrocells. Multicore architectures need a way to direct different trace sources into a single external trace interface. Coresight can combine multiple traces from various cores into one funnel that is then output and captured by a debugger.

TibBit #6

It is sometimes easier to use the significant processing power of the PC to crunch signal processing data than to do the same task on the often limited processing systems found in embedded systems. That’s why Spectrum Signal Processing was highlighting a Linux-based platform that combined both a PCI Express-based carrier card (there’s that term again – see above) that plugged into an Intel-based server for increased signal processing capability. Keith La Rose, Director of Sales at Spectrum, provided a lively discussion about the benefits of combining the flexibility of embedded system boards with the raw processing power of a server – a reoccurring theme at this show.

RTECC Portland, OR 29Jul10 - second picThere were several other well know exhibitors at that show, including Advantech, VersaLogic, Montavista, GreenHills, VIA and others. Instead of visiting the other booths, I headed for the next available technical session in which Jeffrey Schaffer, Sr Field  Applications Engineer for QNX (now Rim). His official topic was; “Developing Next Generation HMI’s for Embedded Systems.” The talk centered around the use of Adobe Flash in embedded systems. This was a timely topic in light of Apple’s ongoing refusal to use Flash in any Apple iPhone products. Jeffrey’s presentation was full of great design tidbit for embedded programmers.

A generous lunch was provided at the show, which helped ensure a good attendance by the engineering community. All in all, I was glad that I attended.

OSCON Shows Breadth of Open Source Software

Friday, July 23rd, 2010

OSCON 2010, Portland OROregon has become synonymous with open source software development. Perhaps this is one reason why the O’Reilly conference moved back to Portland, OR, after a year’s hiatus to Silicon Valley. [See Mike Rogoway’s piece in the Oregonian: OSCON returns to Portland]

Whatever the reasons, the show boasted both a reasonably well sized exhibit hall as well as numerous technical sessions.

Unfortunately, I had only a few precious hours to spend at this year’s OSCON. Most of that time was spent talking to exhibitors on the show floor. Here are the results from my brief walking-man tour.

The first exhibitor you see once you enter the show floor is Intel.  Aside from pressing their Software Insight eMagazine, Intel did have a few engineers on hand to talk about specific topics. For example, I talked briefly with Sunil Suxena, Chief Architect for MeGoo – Intel’s Linux-based open source mobile operating system project. MeGoo resulted from the merging of Intel’s Moblin and Nokia’s Maemo development platforms. MeGoo supports both Intel’s Atom and ARM’s mobile processors.

Sunil was very helpful, answering my wide ranging questions. For example, I didn’t realize that Google’s Android – another Linux-based open source OS for mobile devices – uses Java as a development environment, where as MeGoo uses the QT (C++ based) platform.

As I continue my trek across the exhibit floor, I discovered a first time OSCON start-up called 2600Hz. This company caught my eye because of the phrase’s significance to the hacker community. You can read more about the history of the 2600 Hertz at Wikipedia . But the company 2600Hz deals with the world of cloud telephony. According to Darren Schreiber, the CEO and Co-Founder, his company provides open-source software that enables a fully functional user interface for VOIP projects. The key is its compatibility with FreeSWITCH, Asterisk and YATE switching libraries. Apparently, these libraries don’t normally play nicely together.

My next stop was to a non-profit group called “Code for America,” whose main mission is to encourage the uniform usage of open source software throughout local governments. This group, based in San Francisco, is planning to expand next year into several major cities, including Boston, Washington DC, Philadelphia, Boulder and Seattle.

Qualcomm had a presence at OSCON, which was not surprising since Qualcomm’s BREW is a significant OS and development environment in the realm of mobile handset and devices. At this show, the company was highlighting their Qualcomm Innovation Center (QuIC) which supports the open source community to advance the wireless industry. From the center’s website: “Android, Chromium, Linux, Webkit and MeeGo projects are QuIC’s top open source priorities.”

Broadcom – a competitor to Qualcomm in wireless chipsets –  did not have a booth at OSCON.

Adding to the growing list of companies that provide an open source exploration and documentation tool suite is Palamida. In the re-awakening market for mergers and acquisitions (M&As) of software companies, it makes good business sense to document the versions and type of open source software that might be part of the overall corporate software code base.

Developing code is one things; managing the business process for open source and legacy code workflow is another. Joget is one company that automates this process with a life-cycle based workflow management tool.

Several companies at OSCON were looking for software programmers, from Amazon, the online book giant, to the social media maven embodied by Facebook and even a defense industry player, namely, Lockheed Martin. Add to this list an organization called “Girls in Tech,” sponsored by 24Notion. Girls in Tech is a non-profit social networking group focused “engagement, education and empowerment of like-minded, professional, intelligent and influential women in technology.”

All in all, my time on the exhibit floor opened my eyes to the variety of companies that work with or support the open source software movement. I only wish that I had time to attend a few of the keynotes and technical sessions.

Mentor-Icahn and the Outside Acquisition of EDA

Friday, July 16th, 2010

Mike Rogoway of the Portland-based Oregonian recently wrote a good summary of investor Carl Icahn’s potential reasons for increasing his market share in Mentor Graphics: Mentor Graphics rebounds, but Carl Icahn casts a shadow

In talking with Mike for his story, I began to ponder the actual possibility of an Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) or Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) company acquiring an EDA company.

Over the last several years, many – including myself – have speculated that a PLM company or a supply chain vendor company might buy an EDA tool vendor. While special cases of the reverse have happened – consider Mentor’s recent acquisition of Valor in the PCB space – I no longer think that an outside business will acquire any EDA company.

My change in opinion came from a discussion with a business savvy expert. He pointed out that the merger of a PLM or ERP company with and EDA vendor would ultimately result in one CEO managing both companies. This would be a serious problem, since a PLM or ERP CEO would have little or no understanding of the technology or business needs of the EDA world.

As further proof of the natural break point between the two worlds, I ask this question: Can anyone remember the last time a business outside of EDA come into our chip industry to acquire an EDA company?

This doesn’t mean the EDA suppliers are in trouble, i.e., no one will acquire them. Indeed, it suggests that a natural bread point exists between EDA and PLM-ERP companies.

If you accept this reasoning, then extend it slighty to a more natural and obvious business and technology break point – namely, between hardware and software systems. Although hardware is becoming a commodity and software a differentiator, does it really make sense for hardware companies to acquire software vendors, e.g., Intel and WindRiver. Have such unions ever been successful in the past? Now there is something to think about.

Mentor Graphics’ Summer of Discontent

Thursday, July 8th, 2010

Like a Shakespearian play, every other summer seems to bring a new suitor for Mentor’s affections. The summer of 2010 is no different, though the stakes are getting higher.

Summertime seems to be the season of drama for Mentor Graphics. It was a mere four years ago – in the summer of 2006 – when the Cidadel Financial group made its play for Mentor. Then, in July of 2008, Cadence shocked the electronic design automation (EDA) world by announcing its intentions to acquire Mentor. Now, two years later in the summer of 2010, Carl Icahn is making his big for the Oregon-based EDA chip and board company.

What does Icahn hope to achieve with his growing shares of Mentor stock and options? Three scenarios seem most likely.

First, Icahn may be testing the waters of an industry that he doesn’t yet fully understand. According to some sources within Mentor, this would be analogous to the attempted take-over bid by the Cidadel Financial group in 2006. Proponents of this belief point out that Icahn has recently switched from buying Mentor shares to buying options in order to hedge his bets in the untested EDA waters.

Second, Icahn may hope to force a consolidation between Mentor and another company. Few believe that consolidation among the three major EDA vendors makes sense, e.g., Cadence’s regretful attempted acquisition of Mentor in 2008.

On the other hand, consolidation outside of EDA does make sense. I note that, at roughly the same time Icahn has been buying shares (or, more recently, options) in Mentor, he has also been buying shares in Lawson Software Inc (LWSN). To date, Icahn holds a 12% stake in Mentor and a 9.7% stake in Lawson.

Lawson is a provider of enterprise computer software – a mid-range alternative to the large ERP vendors like SAP and Oracle. Interestingly, Lawson is about the same size (~4,000 employees) and trades in the same range ($7 to $8/share) as Mentor. Therese Poletti at Market Watch notes that Lawson is one of “Oracle’s rejects.”

Mentor recently acquired Valor – a PCB manufacturing company – which move Mentor into the PLM development space. Mentor’s acquisition of a PLM company may make it an even better candidate for a merger with a supply chain company like Lawson.

Last, but not least, Carl Icahn may be buying shares in Mentor to get at cash reserves held by the company.

How will this latest drama play out for Mentor? Me thinketh that ere summer’s end, the full tale will be told.

Videos from DAC, E3 and Arecibo

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

With the July 4th holiday coming up in the next few days and readership likely to be a bit distracted, I decided to make this blog a video experience:

  • Firmware Author Talks at DAC 2010  Gary Stringham talks about embedded software design, focusing on the disconnected between the hardware and software engineers. His recent Elsevier book is titled: “Hardware/Firmware Interface Design”
  • Power.Org at DAC 2010  Fawzi Behmann, Dir of Marketing and Strategic Advisor for Power.org, talks about power architecture activities and ongoing work with ecosystem (hw-sw) partners.
  • Electronic Entertainment Expo – E3 2010  This year, I decided to attend an end-user show in the electronic space, namely, one for gamers. Need I tell you that it was a real sensory adventure? To see the way in which electronics can be engineered into a mass market wonder is amazing. Here’s is my video montage of the E3 event.
  • Arecibo RF Observatory  My son did a great job of piecing together this video from all the interview segments that I had during our trip to the famous RF Telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

Don’t forget our archive of DAC 2010 videos, pictures and editorial coverage!

My pictures from DAC 2010 -