Embedded San Francisco - Embedded.com

Embedded San Francisco

Jack Ganssle regales us with industry trends, interesting products, and tales of free beer from the Embedded Systems Conference in San Francisco.

At this year's Embedded Systems Conference San Francisco, held on April 22 through 26, approximately 11,000 developers like you gathered to see the latest in new tools and products, listen to speakers, and participate in the parties.

Many attended the 200 or so technical talks and tutorials. The two classes I gave were packed with alert folks anxious to learn new things; a flow of astute questions assured me that none (or few) were zoned out. I sat in on other talks and saw the same pattern. I returned with pages of scribbled notes, new ideas and techniques I'm looking forward to using. There were so many classes it was impossible to attend all that spark one's interest, so the organizers gave attendees a CD with the presenters' papers. There are half a dozen classes I'm planning to attend “virtually” at my leisure.

The conference organizers are utterly intolerant of any vendor pitches in the technical talks. This policy keeps sales pitches on the show floor where they belong. A series of exhibitor workshops (distinct from the technical program) let companies push their products while also teaching interested engineers how to use them. This year, Xilinx, ARM, and Zilog participated.

There's far too little room here to describe all of the fascinating products on the show floor, so I'll mention just a few.

Testing “in,” emulators “out”
Some vendors now offer complete DO-178B certification services (a safety critical spec initiated by the FAA that largely, though not completely, requires extensive coverage testing). It was hard to avoid stumbling into RTOS vendors already DO-178B certified.

ShastaQA offers a generic testing service; you give them your embedded product, they'll construct a test harness to automatically put it through its paces.

LDRA offers both execution analysis tools (coverage analyzers and regression testers) as well as static analyzers that examine the use of global variables, procedure parameters, and interfaces between modules.

Static analysis tools have grown in booth space since last year—so presumably in sales too. Klocwork, PolySpace, and others sell programs that look for defects by examining your source code. Klocwork claims that Nortel spends, on average, $14,000 to fix each bug. Presumably this cost is for defects found after a system is deployed—but it's a scary number that dramatically illustrates the cost of bugs. I predict that both static and dynamic analysis tools will experience a huge growth in sales as companies find themselves immersed in recalls and product liability suits.

Some in-circuit emulator vendors (such as Nohau, Ashling, and Signum) still sell traditional ICEs, but all are migrating towards BDM/JTAG products. The capabilities of these newer tools are improving; some include real-time trace, though only if the CPU being tested shoots branch info out the JTAG port. Interestingly, the high-performance $10,000 to $15,000 ICE of years past is being replaced by today's less functional BDM/JTAG, with costs that can approach $10,000. Cheap bit wigglers are still widely available, though.

Surface mount parts continue to shrink, so numerous vendors offer sockets and probing tools. BGA sockets, such as those from Gryphics, were popular at the show. Expect to pay well over $1,000 for a single socket for a 676 pin part. Others (Ironwood, Emulation Technology) sell adaptors that socket the BGA part but bring all of its pins to AMP's popular Mictor connectors. Both Agilent and Tektronix sell cables that connect their logic analyzers to the Mictors. Emulation Technology now has magnifying glasses in their catalog, a necessary aid to working with microscopic packages like the MLP.

The new Visionary Series discussion panels covered the future of the embedded market. Panel members agreed that SoC and ASIC designs are continuing to decline in favor of standard circuits. It's cheaper to toss a high-end processor or FPGA into a system than build a custom IC.

Doug Rasor of TI said his company—a hardware company, of course—employs far more software people than EEs. Right now, the majority of TI's firmware is developed at their facilities in India. Motorola's Paul Grimme acknowledged their firmware effort in India is “huge” as well, but said they also contract a lot to Russia. Gerald McGuire of Analog Devices echoed these comments, and said, “India offers very cost-effective development, and the distance barriers are easy to overcome. The software quality is very high.” Yikes! Are American engineers a dying breed?

Nick Tredennick, always provocative, always interesting, commented that he believes Microsoft will win the OS battles even in embedded systems. He feels that every device with any sort of user interface will use CE on an x86, though other processors running other OSes may be attached for dealing with the real-time parts of the application.

The conference was fun—and not just because of the free beers Wednesday night. Tensilica (which sells reconfigurable processors in IP form) devoted part of their booth to a mockup of the Starship Enterprise's bridge. Every hour actors put on a very entertaining 10-minute episode of Star Trek, which mildly pushed their technology. A real sales pitch followed, one I found interesting. The supermodel was sort of attention getting, too.

Echelon's booth sported a full-sized RV outfitted with their networking technology and the philosophy “if it moves, it's computerized.” Even the outside rear view mirrors had TV cameras hidden behind the two-way glass, their images networked to the inside control station. Want to deploy the awning? Press a button or surf to the RV's web page. RV experts anywhere in the world can monitor the health of the Fleetwood and e-mail owners to issue early alerts of impending problems. Not sure I'd want such a thing, but it's really cool.

For me the conference's highlight was debating several others on a panel about lifestyle issues. Heng Sure, a Buddhist monk replete in robes, gave his introductory remarks in the form of a song he composed for the occasion, while his Mac projected the words onto a screen. What an intriguing mix of ascetics and technology! I just had to ask about this blend of ancient Eastern philosophy and a cutting-edge computer.

His reply: “More monks prefer Macs.” An ascetic with aesthetics.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at .

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