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Embedded in Birmingham

One of the interesting things about visiting trade shows is looking at the other shows that are co-located in the exhibition complex. For many chip designers, a highlight in their show-going was when the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas shared the conference centre with the adult entertainment industry conference.

This year the immediate neighbours of the UK’s Embedded System Show (ESS) at Birmingham’s National Exhibition Centre were exhibitions for both bookmakers and dentists. And many exhibitors at both these shows, or indeed virtually every other exhibition booked into the NEC this year, could easily have had their development staff visiting ESS. A glance through the door of either showed wide-spread use of embedded electronics. (A glance through the door was all I could face of the dentistry show with its large screen videos of advanced dental procedures.)

Meanwhile, back in hall 10, there was less painful stuff to see at ESS, particularly the tools aimed at reducing the odds of projects failing. (Although that link is also verging on the seriously painful.)

As always, the main question on reviewing a show is, after picking through the announcements and product presentations, what are the trends that are going to influence the way in which an engineer will be able to carry out his or her task?

It was difficult with this year’s ESS to see any major trends. There were some new products or product versions, and we will look at these later, but there seemed to be no connection – nothing that makes you sit back and say, “This year the fashion colour is taupe”.

One trend may be the filtering down of tools from the large aerospace and similar projects to more moderate-sized projects. For example, a number of exhibitors with modelling tools felt that they were seeing a renewed growth in interest from beyond the mil/aerospace community where modelling is already widely used. IAR’s Mike Skrtic feels that interest in modelling collapsed at the same time as the dot com bubble, but is now returning.

A similar trend may be happening in software configuration management (SCM), software version management (SVM) and application lifecycle management (ALM) tools. These tools, with overlapping areas of functionality, are mainly used by very large projects, but there appears to be interest from (slightly) smaller teams.

An SCM tool records all the elements of a project: files, source code documents, even CAD drawings. It manages the assets, tracking and recording changes and, in many cases, allowing roll-back to earlier versions. There are several companies in this area, many coming from the enterprise area, and Perforce was demonstrating a tool that tracks multiple versions of the same file. Multiple variants are also a target for pure-systems whose pure::variants software version management tool (an Eclipse plug-in) is aimed at helping companies keep track of the software in families of products, such as engine management units for cars. The thinking is that if a problem arises in one version, the tool helps you locate only those implementations where that same problematic code occurs and allows you to ignore the others when making changes or even product recalls.

A related buzzword is application lifecycle management. (And if that gives you a buzz – have you thought of getting out more? – unless you work for a company that sells ALM tools.) Starting with requirements management, a rigorous definition of what the project needs to do, the technology moves through the different phases of the application, linking changes back to the requirements. MKS was demonstrating its Integrity product as part of moving from its established base in the enterprise into the embedded space.

Doors, from Telelogic, is a requirements management tool that is rooted in embedded, but Telelogic (still waiting to become part of IBM) was more focused on its Rhapsody modelling tool, which now comes in application platform versions. For ESS, the company was talking about its new automotive platform, with built-in support for standards such as AUTOSAR, MISRA-C and OSEK.
Other product announcements or early public outings for already announced products included a new platform for managing DSP clusters from ENEA, a platform for secure wireless devices from Green Hills, a version of MATLAB that generates embeddable C from Mathworks, IAR’s extension of its Yellow Suite tool chain from ARM to Coldfire, and Renesas’s announcement of a new, high-speed, multi-target emulator.

“Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”

“To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”

“The dog did nothing in the night-time.”

“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

And the dog in the night time at ESS was called multicore. With multicore products from Intel and AMD now mature, with recent announcements from ARM and Freescale, and with whispers of products from others, it seemed likely that there would be a rash of tools for programming and debugging these new tools. And, as there is a multicore feature planned for Embedded Technology Journal later this year, ESS seemed like a good opportunity to catch up on what was happening. But it was very disappointing. There were two software development offerings giving programmers the ability to build parallelisation into new code. One, Sieve, from Codeplay, uses a C++ language extension that requires the programmer to identify critical blocks of code and, using the “sieve” command, to isolate the block, delaying side effects until it has completed running. This reduces dependency on other parts of the program and allows the sieve blocks to execute in parallel.
The other tool was from Connective Logic. CLiP is a parallisation technology that has been under development for over ten years and is in use for defence applications. With the arrival of a graphics entry front end, CLiP is being more widely offered. Both of these products will be available in the first half of 2008.
But these two apart, there was a dearth of other tools, particularly and significantly in the area of debugging, where parallel processing opens up the opportunities of dealing with a whole new class of bugs.

The integrated tool chain is another area where there were no major moves. Eclipse, after a flurry of announcements last year, now seems to be either a given or totally ignored (particularly by those companies who have their own integrated tool chains). In some product presentations from companies with point tools, the presenters said, almost as a matter of course, that they were Eclipse plug-ins or had versions that were.

There was one full-on Eclipse announcement, from Phoenix-based DDC-I. Previously known for Ada products and Scorpion, an embedded real-time Java tool (real-time Java – the mind boggles), DDC-I was launching OpenArbour, an Eclipse-based IDE “for embedded real-time, mixed language projects.” It currently supports the company’s versions of Java, Ada, and C/C++, and it uses MLD – DDC-I’s mixed language debugger – to provide a way of sorting out issues of multiple language use in a single project.

One completely new product came from a university spin out: TTE Systems springs from the Embedded Systems Laboratory of the University of Leicester and uses many years of academic research on time-triggered system design to create its RapidiTTy IDE. Targeting high-reliability deeply-embedded applications, time-triggered design requires much more rigorous system definition than the conventional, or event driven, approach but, claims TTE, it requires a lot less debugging and delivers a much more rugged result.

So – in summary – “How was it for you?”

If I were attending as an engineer, I think I would have left with the feeling that the embedded tools industry was working steadily, if not spectacularly, to help me do my job. There were a couple of announcements that started effectively with “We have been talking to our customers, and they have told us that what they want is X, so we have developed it.” I would have probably enjoyed sharing ideas, and I wouldn’t have been overwhelmed with corporate hospitality (coffee and doughnuts was as far as booth catering went). Unlike the dental show, where some of the delegates were so loaded with swag that they could barely carry it, there were no extravagant give-aways. But generally, not a wasted day.

If I were working against a relatively tight deadline, would I have been able to justify the day out? Yes, if I had also attended some of the free presentations at the conference theatre, or learned something in conversation with a tool vendor or colleague that helped my project. But it would have been a close call.

Are the big guns in embedded tools keeping their powder dry for a spring offensive of embedded world and DATE in Europe and ESC San Jose in the US?  If they are, watch this space – ETJ will be bringing you all the news from those events.

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