What I want to see at EE Live! / ESC

On the heels of CES, Embedded World, MWC and SXSW—“embedded” is no longer the fair-haired stepchild behind PCs. The market is embedded.  Here’s what I’m looking for at this week’s EE Live! / ESC conference and exhibition.

Rant:  I hate typing that silly exclamation point in the conference’s name. Think it’d be funny to replace it with a question mark? As in “EE Live?” Not sure what question this would be asking, any more than I have a clue why the good folks at UBM added the “!”.

Here’s my list of wanna-sees at EE Live! 2014 and my reasons why.

8-bit MCUs live on. Microchip's latest PIC MCU family adds peripherals, op amps, and analog.

8-bit MCUs live on. Microchip’s latest PIC MCU family adds peripherals, op amps, and analog.

  • The IoT, IoE, M2M, connected everything.  I expect to see more small module makers announcing connectivity options and remote control smartphone apps. The emphasis will be on extreme battery life for some systems (such as Bluetooth Low Energy), the aggregation of myriad roll-your-own sensors, and connectivity. While I saw all kinds of Wi-Fi and cellular add-on boards at the 2013 Telit Wireless Devcon and wrote about Qualcomm here, I’ve yet to see much emphasis on wireless connectivity in the general embedded market. I expect it to happen in a groundswell…eventually.


  • Anything which contains low power from Intel such as Bay Trail Atoms or Quark or whatever. I know Intel is winning designs, but are they really getting traction against ARM-based SoCs?


  • Is the RTOS dead? Wind River now has VxWorks 7 and it’s oriented around the IoT. Wind River is great at spotting trends and I consider them credible. So is the need for determinism really all that important in most embedded systems? Betcha not, but I want to test that theory.


  • Embedded security…or at least the glimmer of awareness. I harp on this all the time. Vendors from Mocana to Icon Labs (one of our bloggers) to GD’s Open Kernel Labs and Wind River understand security. But what about the other 98% of the embedded market? Let’s see if they’re getting the message yet. Or do we need a few dozen more Target stores security breaches to wake up the designers.


  • Something that’s not a commodity and the same as everyone else’s product. An SBC’s an SBC. But this year at EE Live I’m meeting with scores of new-to-me companies like Cymbet (solid state micro energy sources) and Newark Element14 with their RIoTboard.org initiative.  At the risk of sounding elitist, show me something new!


  • Sensors and stuff: if this whole Internet of Things thing is real (it is), all those intelligent hubs and connected pipes will eventually terminate at…something. That endpoint will measure voltage, temperature, pressure, wigwams/hour, or whatever. I’m expecting to see some interesting new sensors, collection of sensors, or endpoint devices/systems.


  • Demo boards:
    The new RioTboard.org initiative adds Android to development boards. Think Raspberry Pi with a GUI.

    The new RioTboard.org initiative adds Android to development boards. Think Raspberry Pi with a GUI.

    Inforce Computing, Gumstix, Element14, and more should be at EE Live! talking up ways to get neophytes up to speed on their next system. But equally important will be the academic, hobbyist, and engineer-at-night users who will create the next iRobot idea or company.


  • The demise of 8-bit:  it’s been rumored since I ran an 8/16-bit MCU group at Sharp 10 years ago, yet 8-bangers are as popular today (in consumer white goods, for instance) as they’ve ever been. Microchip just announced their latest 8-bit PIC MCU with intelligent analog and a surfeit of peripherals. I’m anxious to ask them why, but they’re on a financial roll lately and have few stumbles. Maybe 8-bit is here to stay.


  • And finally, a retrospective is always fun. Whatever happened to former ESC (before it was EE Live! that is) initiatives like: Machine vision, Multicore, and Virtualization?  They’ve either disappeared or gone mainstream.  I think the latter, and I’m hoping to see how they’ve been integrated.

I’ll update you as I wander the aisles of EE Live! / ESC and meet with embedded suppliers.



PCI Express Switch: the “Power Strip” of IC Design

Need more PCIe channels in your next board design? Add a PCIe switch for more fanout.

Editor’s notes:

1. Despite the fact that Pericom Semiconductor sponsors this particular blog post, your author learns that he actually knows very little about the complexities of PCIe.

2. Blog updated 3-27-14 to correct the link to Pericom P/N PI7C9X2G303EL.

Perhaps you’re like me; power cords everywhere. Anyone who has more than one mobile doodad—from smartphone to iPad to Kindle and beyond—is familiar with the ever-present power strip.

An actual power strip from under my desk. Scary...

An actual power strip from under my desk. Scary…

The power strip is a modern version of the age-old extension cord: it expands one wall socket into three, five or more.  Assuming there’s enough juice (AC amperage) to power it all, the power strip meets our growing hunger for more consumer devices (or rather: their chargers).


And so it is with IC design. PCI Express Gen 2 has become the most common interoperable, on-board way to add peripherals such as SATA ports, CODECs, GPUs, WiFi chipsets, USB hubs and even legacy peripherals like UARTs. The wall socket analogy applies here too: most new CPUs, SoCs, MCUs or system controllers lack sufficient PCI Express (PCIe) ports for all the peripheral devices designers need. Plus, as IC geometries shrink, system controllers also have lower drive capability per PCIe port and signals degrade rather quickly.

The solution to these host controller problems is a PCIe switch to increase fanout by adding two, three, or even eight additional PCIe ports with ample per-lane current sourcing capability.

Any Port in a Storm?

While our computers and laptops strangle everything in sight with USB cables, inside those same embedded boxes it’s PCIe as the routing mechanism of choice. Just about any standalone peripheral a system designer could want is available with a PCIe interface. Even esoteric peripherals—such as 4K complex FFT, range-finding, or OFDM algorithm IP blocks—usually come with a PCIe 2.0 interface.

Too bad then that modern device/host controllers are painfully short on PCIe ports. I did a little Googling and found that if you choose an Intel or AMD CPU, you’re in good shape. A 4th Gen Intel Core i7 with Intel 8 Series Chipset has six PCIe 2.0 ports spread across 12 lanes. Wow. Similarly, an AMD A10 APU has four PCIe (1x as x4, or 4x as x1). But these are desktop/laptop processors and they’re not so common in embedded.

AMD’s new G-Series SoC for embedded is an APU with a boatload of peripherals and it’s got only one PCIe Gen 2 port (x4). As for Intel’s new Bay Trail-based Atom processors running the latest red-hot laptop/tablet 2:1’s:  I couldn’t find an external PCIe port on the block diagram.

Similarly…Qualcomm Snapdragon 800? Nvidia Tegra 4 or even the new K1? Datasheets on these devices are closely held for customers only but I found Developer References that point to at best one PCIe port. ARM-based Freescale processors such as the i.MX6, popular in set-top boxes from Comcast and others have one lone PCIe 2.0 port (Figure 1).

What to do if a designer wants to add more PCIe-based stuff?

Figure 1: Freescale i.MX ARM-based CPU is loaded with peripheral I/O, yet has only one PCIe 2.0 port. (Courtesy: Freescale Semiconductor.)

Figure 1: Freescale i.MX ARM-based CPU is loaded with peripheral I/O, yet has only one PCIe 2.0 port. (Courtesy: Freescale Semiconductor.)

‘Mo Fanout

A PCIe switch solves the one-to-many dilemma. Add in a redriver at the Tx and Rx end, and signal integrity problems over long traces and connectors all but disappear. Switches from companies like Pericom come in many flavors, from simple lane switches that are essentially PCIe muxes, to packet switches with intelligent routing functions.

One simple example of a Pericom PCIe switch is the PI7C9X2G303EL. This PCIe 2.0 three port/three lane switch has one x1 Up and two x1 Down and would add two ports to the i.MX6 shown in Figure 1. This particular device, aimed at those low power consumer doodads I mentioned earlier, boasts some advanced power saving modes and consumes under 0.7W.

Hook Me Up

Upon researching this for Pericom, I was surprised to learn of all the nuances and variables to consider with PCIe switches. I won’t cover them here, other than mentioning some of the designer’s challenges: PCIe Gen 1 vs Gen 2, data packet routing, latency, CRC verification (for QoS), TLP layer inspection, auto re-send, and so on.

It seems that PCIe switches seem to come in all flavors, from the simplest “power strip”, to essentially an intelligent router-on-a-chip. And for maximum interoperability, of them need to be compliant to the PCI-SIG specs as verified by a plugfest.

So if you’re an embedded designer, the solution to your PCIe fanout problem is adding a PCI Express switch. 

The man asked: “Did Intel Lose Altera?”

Altera has made hay around Intel’s 14nm tri-gate (FinFET) process advantages. Have Intel’s Broadwell delays pushed Altera away?

In a recent post entitled “Did Intel Lose Altera?” blogger Ashraf Eassa muses at investment site The Motley Fool that Altera “is crawling back to Taiwan Semiconductor [TSMC]” for Altera’s high end Stratix 10 devices. His post is based upon an article originally written in DigiTimes which I’ve been unable to locate. (This article is similar, but speculates about Apple turning to Intel.)

Altera's Stratix 10 relies on multicore ARM Cortex A53s, DSP blocks, OpenCL, and Intel's 14nm Tri-Gate process.

Altera’s Stratix 10 relies on multicore ARM Cortex A53s, DSP blocks, OpenCL, and Intel’s 14nm Tri-Gate process.

The point, I assume, is Intel’s recent stumble with 14-nm Broadwell CPUs which were originally planned for Q4 2013, with production in Q1 2014 (now), but could possibly be postponed to Q4 2014 (says DigiTimes here).  3D transistors at this fine geometry are approaching rocket science so any delay even by the mighty Intel is not surprising and I’d consider pretty uneventful.

Except I’m not Intel–with a predictable Tick-Tock roadmap and that whole Moore’s Law thing–nor am I running Altera. The FPGA company Altera, of course, is trying to one-up Xilinx who so far is sticking with TSMC’s 20nm goodness.

  • I offer some good insight into Altera’s Stratix 10 plans for Intel’s foundry here.
  • For some insight on Xilinx’s UltraScale products in TSMC’s process, read here.

All of this is playing out under the microscope of Intel’s shallow penetration into the mobile (smartphone and tablet) markets where ARM-based SoCs from Nvidia, Qualcomm and others seem to obviate the dramatic advances Intel has made with their Bay Trail and Quark roadmaps.  So Intel can’t afford any bad press to the financial community.

I’m a fan of Intel, believe they’ll dominate again, and give them kudos for countless new-generation Atom design wins in Windows 8.1, Android, Tizen and other mobile devices. And I’m stoked about how Intel is evolving the all-day battery UltraBook into the 2:1 laptop/tablet. Still, ARM’s licensees dominate this landscape.

So we’ll keep an eye on this story since it intersects several others we’ve posted in the past few months.