From ARM TechCon: Two Companies Proclaim IoT “Firsts” in mbed Zone

UPDATE: Blog updated 14 Dec 2015 to correct typos in ARM nomenclature. C2

Showcased at ARM’s mbed Zone, Silicon Labs and Zebra Technologies show off two IoT “Firsts”.

ARM’s mbed Zone—a huge dedicated section on the ARM TechCon 2015 exhibit floor—is the place where the hottest things for ARM’s new mbed OS are shown. ARM’s mbed is designed to make it easy to securely mesh IoT devices and their data to the cloud. Introduced at TechCon 2014 a year ago, mbed was just a concept; now it’s steps closer to reality.

Watch This!

The wearables market is one of three focus areas for ARM’s development efforts, along with Smart Cities and Smart Home. ARM’s first wearable dev platform is a smart watch worn by ARM IoT Marketing VP Zach Shelby and shown in Figure 1. It’s based on ARM’s wearables reference platform featuring mbed OS integration—with a key feature being power management APIs.

Figure 1: ARM’s smart watch development proof-of-concept, worn by ARM IoT Marketing VP Zach Shelby at ARM TechCon 2015.

Figure 1: ARM’s smart watch development proof-of-concept, worn by ARM IoT Marketing VP Zach Shelby at ARM TechCon 2015.

According to IoT MCU and sensor supplier Silicon Labs, which helped co-develop the APIs with ARM, they “provide a foundation for all peripheral interactions in mbed OS” but are designed with low power in mind and long battery life. No one wants to charge a smart watch during the day: that’s a non-starter. The APIs assure things like minimal polling or interrupts, placing peripherals in deep sleep modes, and basically wringing every power efficiency out of systems designed for long battery life. Mbed OS clearly continues ARM’s focus on low power, but emphasizes IoT ease-of-design.

In the mbed Zone, Silicon Labs was showing off their version of ARM’s smart watch which they call Thunderboard Wear. It’s blown up into demo board size and complete with Silicon Labs’ custom-designed blood pressure and ambient light sensors (Figure 2). The board is based on the company’s ARM Cortex-M3-based EFM32 Giant Gecko SoC.  Silicon Labs’ main ARM TechCon announcement—and the reason they’re in the mbed OS Zone—is that all Gecko MCUs now support mbed OS. We’ll dig into what this means technically in a future post.

Figure 2: Silicon Labs’ version of ARM’s smart watch—blown up into demo board size and complete with Cortex-M3 Giant Gecko MCU and BP sensor. The rubber straps remind that this is still “wearable”, though only sort-of.

Figure 2: Silicon Labs’ version of ARM’s smart watch—blown up into demo board size and complete with Cortex-M3 Giant Gecko MCU and BP sensor. The rubber straps remind that this is still “wearable”, though only sort-of.

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“Hello Chris”

Further proving the growing veracity of mbed OS and its ecosystem is the Zebra Technologies “wireless mbed to cloud” demo shown during Atmel’s evening reception at ARM TechCon (they’re also in the mbed Zone). Starting with Atmel’s ATSAMW25-PRO demo board plus display add-on (Figure 4) containing ARM Cortex-M3 and Cortex–M4 Atmel SoCs, Zebra demonstrated communicating directly from a console to the WiFi-equipped demo.

Figure 4: Zebra Technologies demonstrates easy wireless connectivity to IoT devices using Atmel’s SAMW25 MCU board and OLED1 expansion board.

Figure 4: Zebra Technologies demonstrates easy wireless connectivity to IoT devices using Atmel’s SAMW25 MCU board and OLED1 expansion board.

Typing “Hello Chris” into Zebra’s Zatar browser-based software console (Figure 5), the sentence appeared on the tiny display almost immediately. More than a hat trick, the demo shows the promise of the IoT, ARM cores, and the interoperability of mbed OS connected all the way back to the cloud and the Zatar device portal.

Figure 5: Zebra’s Zatar IoT cloud console dashboard.

Figure 5: Zebra’s Zatar IoT cloud console dashboard.

Zebra’s Zatar cloud service works with Renesas’s Synergy IoT platform, Freescale’s Kinetis MCU, and of course Atmel’s SoC’s (will Atmel also create their own end-to-end ecosystem?). The  Zebra “IoT Kit” demoed at TechCon is “the first mbed 3.0 Wi-FI kit that offers developers a prototype to quickly test drive IoT,” said Zebra Technologies. If you’re familiar with ARM’s mbed OS connectivity/protocol stack diagram, Zebra uses the COAP protocol to connect devices to the cloud. The company was a COAP co-developer.

The significance of the demo is multifold: quick development time using established Atmel hardware; cloud connectivity using Wi-Fi; an open-standard IoT protocol, and the solution is compliant with ARM’s latest mbed OS 3.0.

The fact that the Zatar console easily connects to multiple vendor’s processors means thousands or tens of thousands of IoT nodes can be quickly controlled, updated, and data queried with minimal effort. In short: creating wireless IoT products and using them just got a whole lot easier.

Zebra will be selling the Zebra ARM mbed IoT Kit for Zatar via distributors and more information is available on their website at www.zatar.com/IoTKit.

 

CES Turns VPX Upside Down Using COM

Instead of putting I/O on a mezzanine, the processor is on the mezzanine and VPX is the I/O baseboard.

[ UPDATE: 19:00 hr 24 Apr 2015. Changed the interviewee's name to Wayne McGee, not Wayne Fisher. These gentlemen know each other, and Mr. McGee thankfully was polite about my misnomer. A thousand pardons! Also clarified that the ROCK-3x was previously announced. C. Ciufo ]

The computer-on-module (COM) approach puts the seldom-changing I/O on the base card and mounts the processor on a mezzanine board. The thinking is that processors change every few years (faster, more memory, from Intel to AMD to ARM, for example) but a system’s I/O remains stable for the life of the platform.

COM is common (no pun) in PICMG standards like COM Express, SGET standards like Q7 or SMARC, and PC/104 Consortium standards like PC/104 and EBX.

But to my knowledge, the COM concept has never been applied to VME or VPX. With these, the I/O is on the mezzanine “daughter board” while the CPU subsystem is on the base “mother board”.Pull quote

Until now.

Creative Electronic Solutions—CES—has plans to extend its product line into more 3U OpenVPX I/O carrier boards onto which are added “processor XMC” mezzanines. An example is the newer AVIO-2353 with VPX PCIe bus—meaning it plugs into a 3U VPX chassis and acts as a regular VPX I/O LRU.  By itself, it has MIL-STD-1553, ARINC-429, RS232/422/485, GPIO, and other avionics-grade goodies.

The CES ROCK-3210 VNX small form factor avionics chassis.

The CES ROCK-3210 VNX small form factor avionics chassis.

But there’s an XMC site for adding the processor, such as the company’s MFCC-8557 XMC board that uses a Freescale P3041 quad-core Power Architecture CPU. If you’re following this argument, the 3U VPX baseboard has all the I/O, while the XMC mezzanine holds the system CPU. This is a traditional COM stack, but it’s unusual to find it within the VME/VPX ecosystem.

“This is all part of CES’s focus on SWAP, high-rel, and safety-critical ground-up design,” said Wayne McGee, head of CES North America. The company is in the midst of rebranding itself and the shiny new website found at www.ces-swap.com makes their intentions known.

CES has been around since 1981 and serves high-rel platforms like the super-collider at CERN, the Predator UAV, and various Airbus airframes. The emphasis has been on mission- and safety-critical LRUs and systems “Designed for Safety” to achieve DAL-C under DO-178B/C and DO-254.

“We’ll be announcing three new products at AUVSI this year,” McGee told me, “and you can expect to see more COM-style VPX/XMC combinations with some of the latest processors.” Also to be announced will be extensions to the company’s complete VNX small form factor (SFF) chassis systems, such as a new version of the rugged open computer kit (ROCK-3x)—previously announced in February at Embedded World.

CES is new to me, and it’s great to see some different-from-the-pack innovation from an old-school company that clearly has new-school ideas. We’ll be watching closely for more ROCK and COM announcements, but still targeting small, deployable safety-certifiable systems.

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. 

End of an embedded era: Emerson De-”Mots” Motorola Embedded

As Emerson Network Power gets sold off to Platinum Equity, Motorola Computer Group, Force Computer, Artesyn, and more names may disappear into the history books soon.

8/7/13 UPDATE: Several people have commented that the napkin analysis below neglects to account for the “power” side of Emerson Network Power. ENP was also partly assembled via acquisition including: Astec, Liebert, and others. A comment also was sent to me saying “The embedded power unit has been on the market for a buyer for quite some time…”  Finally, there are some questions raised about the size of the open standard ATCA/xTCA markets, with one person agreeing with my statement that the telcos are successfully using the standards to build their own hardware. This would reduce the TAM for non-captive vendors like Emerson Network Power. Thank you to all who corresponded with me privately.  C2

 

Emerson today announced plans to sell 51 percent of Emerson Network Power to Platinum Equity for $300 million. It’s a shame, for sure. But what’s equally interesting are the embedded technologies and their creators leaving the Emerson camp, and how we got to this place.

Embedded Consolidation by Acquisition

Emerson Network Power became the $1.4 billion business it is today partly by acquiring Motorola Embedded Communications Computing in 2007 for $350 million, when ECC’s turnover was about $520 million (2006). The sale closed in 2008.

Perhaps a bargain for Emerson at the time, in the interest of buying “embedded computing products and services to equipment manufacturers in telecommunications, medical imaging, defense and aerospace and industrial automation,” wrote the St. Louis Business Journal at the time. Motorola’s $520 million in sales was added to Artesyn’s $100 million embedded computing business, acquired by Emerson Network Power the year prior, adding up to over $600 million in revenue 2007.

Just three years prior, Motorola was then called “Motorola Computer Group” (MCG) and had acquired the then-heavyweight Force Computers from board-stuffer Solectron. The terms of the agreement were not immediately disclosed, but I was able to ferret the price of $121 million from a footnote on page 47 of Moto’s 2004 10K here. Interestingly, it was slightly prior to this when Motorola spun off their semiconductor operations to Freescale Semiconductor, a separate financial entity at the time. The combined MCG and Force division became known as Motorola Embedded Communications Computing and was all about standards-based telecom and military products like VME, AdvancedTCA, and so on. But mostly about the telcom-focused AdvancedTCA (ATCA).

If you’re following the math, the cumulative total of acquisitions for these embedded technologies was about $721 million to this point. As I recall, Force didn’t belong to Solectron for very long; less than two years, I think. MCG + Force = Moto ECC added up to about 1,500 employees in August 2004, said the press release at the time. The division’s corporate vice president, Wendy Vittori (previously of Dell Computer if memory serves), said at the time: “We will be able to provide solutions for a wider range of customer application needs, supported by a broader portfolio of boards, systems, and services.”

Moto was number one in VME, although they’d ceded the rugged mil/aero market to the likes of Dy4 Systems (later Curtiss-Wright), Radstone, and SBS (both later part of GE Intelligent Platforms) in the late 1990s. Motorola lead the non-mil market with Motorola’s/Freescale’s own PowerPC-based single board computers, whereas Force had leadership in Intel-based SBCs and broader networking products. Wendy was right: it was a pretty decent technology fit, and Motorola was at that time already parlaying their embedded products into the data center and telecom. A year prior, in 2003, Motorola acquired NetPlane Systems, a telecom provider with data and control plane products…and captive customers.

When the Emerson/Motorola deal closed in 2008, an Emerson press release quoted several analysts praising the acquisition. It also said “A significant trend in the embedded computing industry is the adoption of industry standards, including ATCA, MicroTCA and AdvancedMC (AMC/xTCA)…currently more than 40 percent of network equipment providers are shipping ATCA-based systems.”

Present Tense

So far so good. In fact, I’ve followed the industry closely and agree that wired and wireless infrastructure build-outs continue to favor these embedded open standards-based products, and ATCA et al have replaced proprietary telecom equipment. Emerson Network Power’s VME business, I suspect, never recovered since the market for VME (and now the VXS and VPX variants) is almost entirely in defense. (Recall that Motorola walked away from that business ten years ago.) That leaves ATCA, xTCA targeting the telecom markets.

As recently as two months ago (May 2013), the head of the PICMG standards group responsible for ATCA, xTCA and AMC told me how well the telecom markets were growing. You can read my interview with Joe Pavlat here, where Joe estimated the market for ATCA at somewhere between $1.5 billion and 2.5 billion per year.

What happened?

In February 2013 Emerson’s CEO David Farr went on record with Fortune magazine as saying he wants to “double down in businesses that help manufacturers produce their wares” and to focus on cooling products (like air conditioners and chillers for data centers).

This might explain why Emerson would opt to leave this business along with Emerson’s pre-Motorola power business. The press release issued today cites the group’s revenue at $1.4 billion in 2012, probably less than the cumulative total of the price in real dollars of all those acquisitions if you linearize them from 2008. In fact, the group should probably be selling over $2 billion to achieve the correct ROI on all of those acquisitions, but that bumps up against the ATCA TAM cited above by Joe Pavlat of PIGMG. Did Emerson run out of ATCA runway?

That possibly explains the $300 million purchase price for 51 percent, making the overall sale roughly 50 cents on the dollar of last year’s gross sales. That also puts years’ worth of leading-edge VME, control plane, data plane, networking IP, ATCA, xTCA and other embedded technology up for sale by Platinum Equity. Or maybe not.

Sell it, or Keep it?

Who might want this technology? If you assume that no Emerson Network Power customers will be lost in the process (CapEx equipment is not quickly designed out), Emerson’s competitors like Radisys, Kontron, IBM, Dell, and HP already have their own (open-standard) hardware. My bet is that the key value will be any proprietary IP owned by Emerson plus customer relationships (read: backlog). Yet I can not think of a single open-market company that would want to buy this technology that doesn’t already have the core technology. So why buy it?

But Platinum may own a core company that needs Emerson’s technology for themselves: perhaps a telco or wireless provider who wants to produce their own ATCA equipment and not buy it on the open market. This certainly is a viable strategy for a mere $300 million (to start) to buy a multi-billion dollar telecommunications outfit. When asked to comment on this story, PICMG’s Joe Pavlat said: “Platinum Equity is extremely well regarded and has several other significant telecom investments that, at first glance, appear to be very complementary to the Emerson offerings.” Bingo.

So it may be the end of an era–when companies like Motorola, Force, Artesyn, NetPlane–created and implemented open standards-based embedded computers for the telecommunications industry. Hopefully these names and their creations will live on at another recognizable open standards company. But I’m not hopeful; I suspect they’re gone forever and de-Mot’ed  to the history books.