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Complexity Spreading vs. Intelligent Embedded in the IoT

Which phrase is more indicative of the Internet-of-Things depends upon your viewpoint – namely, from the process or the products.

This week, my attention was on the Internet-of-Things (IoT). Earlier this week, several experts from ARM, Cadence, and other companies shared the challenges of integrating essential analog/mixed-signal and RF technologies into digitally based IoT devices. At mid-week, I interviewed ARM’s Embedded Strategist, Dominic Pajak. (Look for that video next week.) Pajak, a former microcontroller designer, brings a seasoned viewpoint to the embedded side of the IoT equation.

This system-level perspective – chip, embedded, and beyond – helped me to overcome a bias that I had to the “IoT” phrase. To be honest, I thought that IoT was just the latest marketing ploy to rehash the old computation-communication convergence “wars” from the last decade. (See “Are Mobile Communication and Computer RF Technologies on a Collision Course?,” June 2000.)

Certainly, there are similarities between these two concepts. For example, both require the ongoing convergence of analog (mixed-signal) and digital systems. But today’s IoT adds the element of sensor systems to the mix. Many engineers may view this as a trivial addition to the overall design equation, as sensors, instrumentation, and data-acquisition technologies have been understood since the ’50s.

What is new is the scale of integration, which adds a new level (network?) of complexity. This is not the deep complexity of a new transistor device structure like a FinFET or the associated 3D manufacturing challenges. Instead, the IoT requires a spreading out of reasonably well-understood technologies, which is a different kind of complexity. The end result is a complexity spreading or even smearing-out process. (From a device or product perspective, this is known as smart sensors or intelligent embedded.)

This is not a new phrase. In the world of cellular code-division-multiple-access (CDMA) design, the term “complexity spreading” often refers to various algorithmic designs related to spread-spectrum systems. However, in terms of the smart sensor technology (sensors with some processor intelligence), I would argue that complexity spreading refers to the pushing out of this intelligence as far as possible – in this case, to the interface with the analog physical world experienced by the sensor. Whenever “intelligence” is pushed outward, so too is the technology needed to enable that intelligence – namely, digital microcontrollers, processor, memory, and interface (wired or wireless) systems.

By nature, complexity spreading requires low-power systems. Sensors are often located in remote regions or, if not remote, in very restricted areas. This necessitates extreme power conservation, which is why ARM’s processors – already a dominant force in mobile wireless technology (e.g., mobile phones) – are well positioned for the complexity spreading required by IoT.

Want to learn more? Then you should attend the “Kick-Starting IoT Session” at the ARM Tech Con:

Date: Thursday, October 31, 2013

Location: Santa Clara Convention Center (Mission City Ballroom B1)

Kick-starting IOT Session Agenda:

09.00 – 10.00      Keynote: John Cornish, ARM – Enabling the Internet of Things (Main Ballroom)

10.20 – 11.00      Simon Ford, ARM – Connecting ARM Cortex-M to the Cloud

11.00 – 12.00      Panel Session: Zach Shelby, ARM; Michael Finnegan, Sprint

12.00 – 12.30      Matt Webb, Berg – Experiences behind Innovative Product Design

12.30 – 13.00      Includes lunch

13.30                   IoT Developer Hands-On Lab

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