For those of us who have been around the embedded business for a couple of years, it's been fun watching the incredible rise of Raspberry Pi, which has now sold over four million boards. The newest Pi 2 (as shown below) even has a quad-core ARM Cortex-A7 processor running at 900MHz which gives 6X the performance of the original at the same $35 price — its Moore's law in action, folks.
However, I think it's important to note that the Raspberry Pi is just the most visible example of a whole wave of new embedded computing boards (a.k.a. single board computers and system/computer on modules) that are rapidly coming to market. Looking back two years, there were just a handful of ARM-based embedded computing boards available for prototyping or for production systems, but now there are hundreds of vendors offering products. So what happened?
My interpretation is that we're seeing “trickle-down technology” at work in its purest form. By this I mean that leading-edge technology is first developed and deployed in critical or high-growth applications, and then costs come down and the technology moves (or trickles down) into mainstream use. The history of technology is full of trickle-down technologies — think microwaves, radar, Teflon, minicomputers, PCs, and — in this case — smartphone technology. It's the amazing advances in mobile technology in terms of low-power multi-core processors being produced in massive volumes that is trickling down to other applications and industries. I'm not alone in this thinking, Chris Anderson, the former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine and now CEO of drone startup 3D Robotics (pictured below) attributes the rise of drones to the trickle down of mobile technology (specifically processors, batteries, and connectivity).
The entire Internet of Things (IoT) phenomenon might be viewed as the ultimate example of trickle-down technology because the IoT is a combination of sensors, processors, connectivity, and storage technology falling in cost so fast that a whole new market can emerge. But getting back to our embedded board example, let's consider what's driving the market in more detail. Looking beyond the Raspberry Pi, below we see some innovative, production-ready, long-life-span, and often ruggedized boards you can buy today using processors from Freescale, Texas Instruments, Atmel, NVIDIA, Qualcomm, and Xilinx (full disclosure; I am currently consulting for ARM).
Freescale is an embedded computing pioneer. It was present at the birth of the VME board standard and has been steadfast in its support of the board business over the last three decades. Freescale has had great success with the i.MX6 processor family since its launch in 2011. As Freescale product manager, Alexandra Dopplinger, told me, they have over 20,000 end-customers using boards based on the i.MX6. For example, Boundary Devices offer a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 board called the Nitrogen6x (pictured below) for under $200.
Texas Instruments (TI) has also been a major player in embedded boards, and was active with its OMAP family, which “trickled down” from its mobile initiatives, but the Sitara processor is now found on boards from multiple suppliers. The Sitara AM335X processor utilizes the ARM Cortex-A8 core, and PHYTEC sells complete Sitara-based single-board computers or SOMs (pictured below) in various configurations for under $100.
Atmel is a relatively new entrant into the embedded computing board market, but it has made waves with the ATSAMA5 processor (ARM Cortex-A5), which boasts very low power coupled with the ability to run full Linux on a SOM or COM priced around $50. Product manager, Thomas Aubin, told me that Atmel is offering 10-year supply of the ATSAMA5 part and has agreements in place for memory supply over the same time period from Micron, ISSI, and Winbond, so if you design this into a system with a long life expectancy you are covered. ACME Systems offers a highly compact COM board (53mm x 53mm, or roughly two inches square) as illustrated below.
One of the great advantages of the ARM ecosystem is that silicon vendors can take the best ARM IP and combine it with their own expertise to offer board suppliers unique capabilities. A perfect example of this is the Xilinx Zynq, which combines a dual core ARM Cortex-A9 processor with programmable FPGA fabric. Dave Tokic of Xilinx says that this approach gives designers tremendous flexibility in the way they approach a project — they can use the Cortex-A9 to run the system, and use the FPGA fabric for highly compute-intensive functions like video processing in a single device. The block diagram for the Zynq is shown below.
Avnet offers the Zynq-based ZedBoard (along with a lively online community) for as little as $249, which is an incredibly low entry point into the world of FPGAs.
Another example of unique capabilities in embedded computing is the GE Automation mini COM Express format board, which features the NVIDIA Tegra K1. The Tegra K1 has quad ARM Cortex-A15 cores augmented with 192 CUDA GPU processing units, which offer incredible video processing capabilities at low cost and — more importantly — low power (under 10W). GE Automation has so much confidence in the board that it's being used as the primary visual navigation system to land on the moon (there is no GPS on the moon) as part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE entry from Astrobotic (see the rover below). The GE board is space-ready and sells for less than $1,000.
Qualcomm is well known for communications innovation, so you would expect an embedded processor from it to be replete with comms options, and their Snapdragon doesn't disappoint. The latest Qualcomm Snapdragon (810) is a 64-bit octa-core processor (4x ARM Cortex-A57 and 4x ARM Cortex-A53) with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS, so whatever the system designer needs to connect to there are many ways to get there. The Snapdragon processor (block diagram below) is appearing in May on new boards from Canada's Intrinsyc at a $495 price point (SOMs should sell for less).
In this column we have taken a brief look at six processor companies, each using their unique design knowledge to give board vendors and — ultimately — system designers incredible capabilities that have “trickled down” from advances in mobile devices. The Raspberry Pi is just one example of trickle-down technology, but there are over 100 board vendors embracing semiconductor innovation and bringing it to the wider world of embedded boards for diverse, long-life, and ruggedized applications.
You can find a guide to boards and software — and also hear from industry experts — on the ARM Connected Community. Have you got a favorite board or “trickle-down” story to share?
David Blaza is a technology and media executive with international experience in sales, outbound marketing, and managing teams. His specialties include online and event media serving the global electronics industry, particularly embedded systems and semiconductors.
David has worked in sales management, acquisitions, business development, and new product development for the B2B tech industry. His particular strength is understanding how to take new (or declining) products to market using creative marketing and sales techniques and then delivering results. David has a passion for bringing new technology to market and establishing strong partner ecosystems, especially in embedded systems and the emerging “Internet of Things” space. He is currently consulting on content marketing, community development, events, and the marketing revolution!
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