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Embedded Technology Looms at ESC

Embedded Systems have tracked the progress in desktop and enterprise computing, only faster. Development practices and standards have been much slower to mature, however, and this week’s Embedded Systems Conference in San Jose will surely show an industry struggling to keep pace with the rapid rate of change in technology demands. Embedded computing systems have gone from bit-stingy, machine coded, custom crafted, one-off jobs to standards-based, memory-rich, multi-processing, IP-re-using, connected wonders – in an improbably short period of time.

As systems have changed, so have the engineers and teams that design them. Rapidly disappearing is the tall-thin engineer that does a top-to-bottom soup-to-nuts embedded system design. Replacing him is the domain-focused specialist array – a team of experts, each of whom understands and creates a specific portion of the overall package – often distributed over a number of companies loosely collaborating as part of a platform “ecosystem.”

As the teams and technology change, so do the suppliers have to adapt. Already in the weeks and days leading up to ESC, a rush of announcements has surrounded the arrival of the event like a shock wave traveling with a fast- moving plane. This year, we will see the battle for ownership of the ecosystem as processor vendors and OS vendors each vie for control of the developer’s cockpit. We will also see a continued infusion of non-embedded methodologies and technologies into the embedded space, including multi-core, multi-processor architectures, wider words, virtualization layers, more memory management, more feature-laden operating systems and middleware, higher-level programming techniques, and better-than-enterprise-class development and debugging facilities.

Day one of the show got off with a bang — Al Gore delivered an inspired and sobering keynote – throwing down the gauntlet to the assembled array of embedded developers to act locally by applying their problem-solving and system-design skills to the problem of probably the most pressing global issue facing the planet – the destruction of the earth’s environment by the expansive, expanding, and inefficient use of fossil fuels. The call-to-action of the talk was that we, as designers of distributed, intelligent devices, can have a measurable effect on things like the efficiency with which humans work and consume energy. Gore also pointed out that the pursuit of ecologically friendly technology could be a profitable venture, particularly if longer-term strategic business thinking is applied in favor of the usual quarter-to-quarter corporate myopia.

The keynote ended, the doors opened, and the fanfare and futility of the ritual we know as the modern technology trade-show began. A thousand (give or take a few) flat screens sprang to life, broadcasting marketing-driven, color-matched, engineer-attracting, pain-pointing calls-to-action, imploring us to step into the booth, belly up to the demo station, grab some swag, and swipe our identity into the lead database in exchange for a moment or two of engineered enlightenment. Away in the corners and meeting rooms, enthusiastic entrepreneurial PowerPoint proselytizers preached to previously unenlightened editors, angling for a mention or two in a seldom-scanned middle-page column of a trade rag, or for the attention of an influential middle-manager at an acquisition-capable conglomerate that might accelerate their exit strategy in a financially favorable manner.

Does your embedded operating system require too much manual manipulation to bring up, pulling you away from work that adds value and differentiates your product? Step into the warm and welcoming arms of a fully-supported commercial OS, complete with get-you-rolling goodies and lots of new friends that have solved problems just like yours. Tired of paying royalties for commercial OS that you really think you could have invented better? Download the latest open-source socialized-software spectacular and see how the power of the global software engineering community can jump-start your project with fabulous free source code, just waiting for your competent customization.

Are you having difficulty adapting to the transition from single-core to multi-core processors? There are a host of happy-to-help you companies with various solutions that will calm your nerves and cool your boss’s anxiety – from debuggers that can monitor and synchronize those independent-minded processors to virtualization layers that can insulate your OS from the painful reality of the changes in the underlying processor platform.

Is security an issue in your embedded system? With more complex systems appearing in areas like public transportation, medical systems, and military and aerospace, vulnerability to attack is becoming more of a concern, and the trend toward ubiquitous connectivity compounds the problem. Never fear – there are a variety of vendors who have thought about the security problem far longer than you have, and they stand ready to provide you with off-the-shelf virtual locks and keys to protect you, your customers, and your intellectual property from just about every conceivable threat.

Does debugging with real hardware give you a headache? Try a virtual platform. Virtual platforms can now execute at very close to real hardware speeds, and they provide a level of flexibility, visibility, and distributed development capability that real hardware will never match. Several companies are playing the virtual platform percussion, drumming up interest in the still-not-mainstream methodology. Reports from real design teams are favorable, however, and we expect to see a dramatic increase in embedded development using virtual models of hardware.

Expanding memory in embedded systems means that more data is being piled into our devices. More data means more data management problems, and those problems are quickly outgrowing the capacity of simple, hand-crafted custom data management. To welcome the arrival of this data deluge, we are starting to see companies specializing in delivering database technology for device software. Early target applications include MP3 metadata, GPS map information, and program guide listings for set-top-boxes.

Of course, ESC will also be demonstrating the latest version of every conceivable embedded hardware component from power supplies to touch-screen displays. We will also be presented with a strong field of papers, talks, panels, and tutorials – many of which will simultaneously enlighten, enrage, and anesthetize us. The net effect of the event on the average attendee will probably be something like the over-stimulated state one gets when spending too long in the shopping mall – a mental numbing in response to more concepts, options, and ideas than the brain can reasonably digest in a small amount of time.

Next week, we’ll be back with all the particulars of the show – and with our analysis of the technological tea leaves that this year’s field of exhibitors and presenters has thrown down.

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