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ESC Boston homes in on software dev't

Posted: 01 Nov 2005     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded systems conference boston  software development  fpga  rtos  eclipse framework 

If the hardware side of the chip industry marches to the tune of doubling transistor densities every two years, the software industry has its own rallying cry: Double software productivity. At the Embedded Systems Conference Boston, vendors ranging from Accelerated Technology to Xilinx Inc. signaled progress on the software-development front.

"When we first tried to get the embedded community to look on our FPGAs not as programmable logic, but as embedded processors, we got killed because of the software-development tools," said Tim Erjavec, a Xilinx marketing manager. At ESC, engineers tried out Xilinx development kits for the PowerPC and MicroBlaze processors targeted to the Virtex-4 FPGAs. The kits, which started shipping last September, include a development board, the embedded tool suite, an in-circuit emulator, reference designs and more than 60 IP cores. Erjavec said the kits—priced at less than $1,000—include an arsenal of software productivity boosters, ranging from wizards to pull-down menus and a complete integrated development environment (IDE) based on the Eclipse platform.

For the past two decades, FPGAs have proceeded in a largely horizontal direction with telecommunications as the primary vertical market. Now, Xilinx and its partners are creating the particular types of IP that will help vendors succeed in growing markets such as automotive and medical systems.

Robert Day, director of marketing at Accelerated Technology, a subsidiary of Mentor Graphics Corp., said the software-development tools needed to program the "soft" processors from Actel, Altera and Xilinx have improved enough that engineers now have "a fighting chance to get them actually working."

At the ESC show, Accelerated Technology demonstrated its small-footprint RTOS called Nucleus that runs on the Xilinx soft cores and the Nios soft core from Altera Corp. The Nucleus development tools, which run on an Eclipse platform, provide an alternative to the Eclipse-based IDEs from FPGA vendors, making it possible for design teams to plug tools into their Eclipse platform, as needed, from a variety of vendors.

Day estimated that about half of the FPGAs that have soft processor cores onboard use an OS to manage concurrent tasks, while the rest are used for sequential processes that do not require an OS. He quoted research, presented at the conference by CMP Media LLC—owner of both EE Times and the ESC show—that showed that about 60 percent of the embedded-development engineers said they planned to use an FPGA in their next design. Of those, about 40 percent said they were considering a soft processor on the FPGA.

"If you do the math, that means about 25 percent of new embedded designs from the people who responded to the survey may include a soft processor core in their next designs. To me, that sounds a bit high, but even if the number is 10 to 15 percent, there is no doubt that FPGA-based processors are becoming significant in the embedded space," Day said.

The Eclipse platform, which was placed into an open-source group called the Eclipse Foundation by IBM Corp., is gaining traction within the embedded community as a means of plugging in compilers, editors, debuggers and other software-development tools, Day said. During the past year, Wind River, the largest player in what it calls the "device software optimization" sector, has moved its IDE from a proprietary user interface and platform to Eclipse. And companies such as Accelerated Technology, Altera, Texas Instruments and Xilinx have based their tools on the Eclipse platform.

Nokia announced that it will lead the development of an Eclipse framework for mobile Java development tools, contributing its own tools to an effort aimed at offering complete tooling support for the Java for the mobile environment standard.

Reluctant supporter

The major holdout from the Eclipse Foundation, Green Hills Software Inc., demonstrated its C and C++ compilers at ESC—but not its debuggers and other key software—plugged into the Eclipse platform. Green Hills founder Dan O'Dowd has been critical of the Eclipse approach, earlier calling it "a patchwork" and "a half-built framework."

O'Dowd told EE Times that his company's support for Eclipse came at the behest of customers that sought to integrate the Green Hills compilers with Eclipse-based plug-ins that they had already purchased.

"I'm not sure Eclipse is right for the general market. The perceived advantage is that it enables a lot of third-party tools, but I have my doubts about the chances that it will all work together. We are not taking up the Eclipse banner," O'Dowd said.

Middleware marches on

Real-time software supplier Quadros Systems Inc. announced at ESC a software development kit for Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) connectivity within the home. Stephen Martin, director of marketing, said Quadros is among the first software companies to offer UPnP development software aimed at suppliers of consumer electronics, security systems and computer peripherals. The UPnP software enables a device to join a network without intervention by the user over both wired and wireless networks.

Martin said large consumer companies that previously would have developed their own software are increasingly turning to outside vendors. "The industry is making more complex systems with shorter time-to-market schedules and smaller design teams. They have to build systems that support all of the standards, protocols, I/O and applications. So they come to people like us," Martin added.

That also means that companies like Quadros, which has a core competency in small-footprint, RTOSes, must combine many more software layers, bringing together USB drivers, hardware security and file systems that write to flash and other forms of embedded memory. With about a dozen engineers, Quadros is developing a growing number of partnerships with other software companies, including device driver supplier Intelligraphics Inc., on the UPnP software development kit, he said.

The U.S. military and large defense contractors are driving software standards for the networked battlefield, partly to gain cost-efficiencies from commercial off-the-shelf products.

"The military has this vision of the unified global data space," said Pauline Shulman, director of product strategy at middleware supplier Real-Time Innovations Inc. For systems ranging from PDAs to ground-based vehicles, the Pentagon's goal is to use the same data set to create "systems of systems" in a "global information grid."

RTI has developed expertise in middleware that allows these systems to engage in "publish-and-subscribe" networks, in which one intelligent sensor or system declares its intent to publish certain forms of data, while others declare their intent to subscribe.

The Network Data Distribution Service technology, first developed within Stanford University's robotics laboratory, is now being used in a variety of peer-to-peer networks that have a large number of nodes, such as Britain's train system, air traffic control systems and battleships. Japan-based Omron Corp. has developed a system of intelligent traffic signals that are deployed throughout Tokyo using publish-and-subscribe networks to adjust the timing of traffic signals on Tokyo's road network, Shulman said.

RTI announced at the conference the acquisition of IP called SkyBoard from 4TEC BV. The SkyBoard name is meant to convey the concept of a "white board in the sky," Shulman said.

Just as the home-centric UPnP standard is intended to make it simple for home users to plug video cameras and displays into their home networks (and later unplug), the SkyBoard technology allows larger networks to continuously change as devices join and leave the network.

That goal is not easy to achieve, Shulman said. "Publish and subscribe is a neat way to relay information. The challenge for these peer-to-peer networks is to guarantee QoS in real-time."

Another company moving into the middleware space is Enea Embedded Technology, which is best known for its OSE RTOS. Enea introduced a middleware called Element, which ensures that applications spread across multiple OSes and processors can operate reliably.

Anders Flodin, director of strategic alliances at Enea, said large computer and networking companies such as Cisco, HP and IBM have developed proprietary middleware for high-availability systems. Element, which sells for about $75,000, brings that capability into the commercial market to system vendors that make cellular base stations, medical electronics networks and other "systems of systems."

"In the embedded space, there have not been a lot of middleware products until now," Flodin said, noting that Enea competes with vendors such as Clovis and GoAhead in offering middleware to the embedded marketplace. As OEMs focus their engineering resources on their own value-adding software, they increasingly tend to "buy rather than build," he said. The Element middleware required 40 man-years of engineering effort and includes a half-million lines of code.

"Companies are trying to figure out, 'Where do we add value?' For the things that are not core to their value-add, they are willing to share costs with their competitors by buying more commercial software," Flodin said.

- David Lammers

EE Times




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