Kontron's shift to ARM; announcement soonThe Atom may be a fundamental building block, but ARM and Android out-muscle it at Kontron as software API comes into focus.
Today's headline-grabbing story is that Kontron is announcing their intention to launch a broad-based board and system product line using a "dual processing" ARM core. The announcement will be soon--maybe mid-September, but certainly will be after the Intel Developer's Forum (IDF). [Update: See Kontron's announcement, which became available the day after I posted this blog.]
Kontron hasn't specified which ARM core, nor which SoC vendor will provide it. At first glance, this is nothing short of a "no confidence" vote in Intel's current low-power Atom line-up. You see, Kontron works in lock-step with Intel and is always the first board vendor to announce support for Intel's latest offerings. It was this way with the previous Core Duo, Core 2 Duo, Nehalem, and most recently, the Core i7 Sandy Bridge CPUs. Kontron will always announce products with Intel's latest and greatest.
But since Kontron is under deep NDA with Intel, the addition of ARM-based doodads in the Kontron line-up means that the company desperately needs low-power hardware offerings--battery-based and fanless cooling--sooner than Intel's Atom roadmap will allow. What a shame. I had hoped that Intel wouldn't cede the low-power and handheld market for so long.
Of course, back when Transmeta's Crusoe first showed Intel that low-power x86s could sell, Intel's Israeli design team cranked out a new architecture that lead to the Pentium M and changed the company's thinking on more-clocks-is-more-MIPs. (Once Intel awoke to low-power CPUs, it all but buried Transmeta. Today, the company doesn't even exist.) So I'm confident that Intel will create an ARM-killer . . . eventually. Just not in the immediate future. Else Kontron wouldn't be ready to roll out an ARM-based product line in COM Express, Q7, SUMIT, PC/104 et al, and the myriad other form-factors that Kontron could pursue.
It's all about the software
Still, the real story here is about software architecture. Kontron has for the last several years enforced a strict BSP/API strategy on their board designs. The theory then was that with the appropriate "wrapper" around the hardware, the API could abstract many of the basic function calls and seamlessly layer on whatever operating system was appropriate for the board or end system. And Kontron plays in lots of systems: from safety-critical public transportation in Europe and Asia, to military (through its acquisitions of companies like AP Labs), to medical and POS kiosks. I've repeatedly joked with Kontron's management that the company has a trenchcoat-like strategy with boards. You want one? We got ‘em!
As for OSes, depending upon the vertical market, Kontron offers Windows 7, Windows Embedded 7 Compact/CE, Green Hills INTEGRITY, Wind River VxWorks, QNX, Linux, and even Android. Especially Android--which is an area that Kontron is likely prepping for their impending ARM launch. According to Kontron spokesman Matthias Huber, director of product management, the company's API strategy makes unbolting the underlying hardware also do-able. So things like status, watchdog timers, and memory maps to peripherals like SATA, PCIe, and Gigabit Ethernet are similar whether the CPU is a Core i7, Atom, QorIQ, or ARM core.
Still, Mr. Huber doesn't call this more than a "little shift" in strategy. Afterall, the company has swapped out CPUs before: from PowerPCs to x86s and even to network processors (NPUs) on some CompactPCI telecom boards.
It's tempting to get all excited about how Kontron might be snubbing Intel in the low-power SWaP (size, weight and power) end of the marker. And that probably is true.
But the more interesting story brewing here is how the software part of Kontron's system design and vertical market strategy is really the bulk of the company's efforts. Making all those BSPs and sticking to their API wrapper paradigm involves attention to detail and the focus to avoid "feature creep." As well, as Android pervades the embedded market--particularly on ARM-based SoCs--Kontron is well positioned to capitalize on the OS shift and move into new areas.
Yet again I'm seeing that it really is all about the software. The hardware, though important for sure, is becoming almost a "don't care."
Chris A. Ciufo is the director of content for Embedded Systems Design magazine, Embedded.com, and the Embedded Systems Conference. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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