In the subterranean hallways of the main railway station in Nuremberg, every ticket machine is surrounded by people wrestling with the fare structure and the unfamiliar currency. The regular morning commuter traffic works it way through the crowds with a resigned air; the hotel owners post room rates that are twice the normal rack rate; the restaurants offer special menus with special mark ups; and the bars are full of people nervously or enthusiastically pouring back Maßkrugs of beer. It’s trade fair time again, and, as it is February, it is embedded world, the enormous event where every company with the pretension of serving the embedded market sets out its wares.
The U-bahn (metro) is rammed, and, when the doors of the Conference centre are opened, a flood of visitors pour in – some heading, head-down, for a pre-arranged meeting, and others drifting through the aisles, towing large bags to gather swag – sorry! promotional items. By 9:30, the entire site is humming. The first booth demos are taking place, as presenters wrestle with power point and head-mounted microphones. And through all of this is a small number of people with yellow badges, rushing from meeting to meeting, each scheduled for half an hour. These are the editors, trying to find something interesting to write about to justify the travel costs, the expensive hotel (and don’t mention – the bar bill). Given that there are nearly 1000 exhibitors, the show would need to last for close to three months if every company were to be covered in half hour sessions.
In all my (over 40) meetings, I set a mental count-down clock to see how long it would be before the Internet of Things (IoT) was mentioned. The winner, who must remain anonymous, held off 29 minutes of a 30-minute session, and even then said only, “things connected to the Internet”. The losers included those in press conferences whose opening slides had “Internet of Things” on them and the many booths with “Internet of Things” splashed across them.
So – one theme was the Internet of Things, but, more importantly, a subset of that was connectivity. Another major theme was automotive, which had a strong overlap with connectivity. And a third theme of my meetings, which is probably self-selected, is tools.
Let’s start with automotive. There is a convention within the industry to talk about OEMs – the companies such as Ford, Mercedes, and Toyota, who actually build – or rather assemble – the cars; Tier 1s – the companies, such as Continental, Magneti Marelli, etc., who supply subsystems to the OEMs; Tier 2s – who supply the Tier 1s – and so on. In the past, it was unusual for the OEMs to talk to anyone except the Tier 1s; certainly, it was very unusual for them to talk to silicon companies. However, things have changed radically. A car, from one perspective, is now a collection of electronic systems and networks with communication to the outside world, which has a set of wheels and an engine. Automotive manufacturers are seeking out silicon companies with specialist products, and then specifying to their Tier 1s that these products be incorporated within the subsystems. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, the things that essentially were a car – engines, brakes, steering, etc. – in most new cars are now controlled electronically. These are being extended by ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) with lane tracking, lidar and radar for vehicle separation, automatic parking, enhanced vision systems – in fact, all the intermediate steps to the fully autonomous car. Another factor is the infotainment systems, which provide information on the car’s behaviour and on traffic and road conditions fed by cellular communication or Wi-Fi from roadside transmitters. GPS-powered navigation systems and entertainment – from conventional radio to streaming video for passengers – are increasingly being positioned as differentiating factors in marketing. And all of these are software running on silicon. It appears we have long ago passed the point where steel went from one of the major costs in a car to one of the least expensive.
Another factor is the increasing adoption of ISO 26262 – the standard for the functional safety of light vehicles – i.e. cars. While this is not yet legally mandated in any country – should a car company be taken to court, lawyers will almost certainly use failure to adopt 26262 as evidence of not working to “best practice”. For all these reasons, the OEMs are looking far more closely at the lower levels of the supply chain.
One company I spoke to – Inova – is at the sweet spot of Automotive/Communications. Their APIX technology is a multichannel SerDes (Serializer-Deserializer) that can combine multiple communications channels, audio, video, data, Ethernet, and – since embedded world – HDMI, into a shielded copper cable with two differential pairs. The Munich, Germany-based company claims to be in the cars of ten of the leading automotive manufacturers and working with more than 20 Tier 1s.
On every PCB there are several small devices doing valuable work – particularly for communication – almost in anonymity. These include devices such as clocks and oscillators, switches, bridges, and repeaters. Pericom, now a part of Diodes Inc, has built a portfolio of high-speed serial products for the industrial and medical markets and is now making a push into the automotive networking sweet spot, both in infotainment and also in some parts of ADAS, with, in particular, packet switches and PCI and USB re-drivers.
Cadence (along with the other two of the big three in chip design (EDA)) was present. I find I forget that for many years now all three have been big IP players. In Cadence’s case, it owns Tensilica – best known for the Xtensa configurable processor family – and also a wide range of other IP. Cadence was another company pushing automotive, and also looking at ADAS, infotainment, automotive Ethernet, and functional safety. Again, we are looking at direct links with car companies in addition to the system integrators and chip designers.
One thing automotive you couldn’t miss was NXP’s “Smarter World” Tour truck. A massive tractor unit, futuristically styled, tows a huge trailer, which was clearly designed by someone who had a lot of Transformers as a child, as the roof rises and the sides expand to provide a two-level arena for around 200 demos, many interconnected, of IoT things. NXP recently merged with Freescale, so editors had only a single press conference at which Geoff Lees, ex-NXP, then Freescale, and back at NXP as Senior Vice President & General Manager of Microcontrollers outlined the positioning of the microcontroller powerhouse and its focus for the future, which is: secure, connected vehicle; smart, connected solutions; and security and privacy.
Moving on to tools, which are an increasing focus at the event. We saw:
Version 10 of the LDRA tool suite, with enhancements across a wide range of areas – particularly in areas for identifying vulnerabilities in safety-critical applications.
Vector software announcing new tools for measuring software code quality and test coverage – for automating tests and generating analytics – and providing what they call Health Check and Baseline Testing services. These last are assessments of a company’s testing infrastructure.
A new version of PRQA’s application suite for its static code analysis tools, with an emphasis on security and compliance with guidelines.
Renesas announcing major extensions to its Synergy development platform. Synergy is a free-to-use set of development tools for the company’s ARM-based products, which includes a version of Express Logic’s ThreadX RTOS, middleware, stacks and interfaces, and certified add-ons. The extensions include a range of security options for IoT and a special version of IAR’s embedded workbench – an IDE with a C/C++ compiler and debugger tool chain including static analysis and runtime analysis.
Express Logic with a headline that there are now 5.4 billion devices running ThreadX – although, when I went to their site in early March, the counter had ticked up to 5.5 billion. The company introduced the new x-Ware secure platform, an integrated set of development tools that take advantage of the ARM TrustZone technology on Cortex M processors.
Altium – another company with a development platform. Altium has extended its TASKING software development environment with the TASKING safety checker, aimed squarely at automotive functional safety.
AdaCore, the open source safety-critical specialist, announcing the final two products in a complete re-vamp of its product line-up. There have been recent releases of a new version of CodePeer, a static code analysis, code reviewer, and validator tool for ADA and of the SPARK Pro verification environment. They have been joined by a new version of QGen, which generates SPARK and MISRA C compliant code from Simulink and Stateflow models, and the latest version of the company’s flagship: the ADA development environment, GNAT Pro.
The classic J-Link debug probe from Segger has grown up with the launch of J-Link Pro, which has a Gigabit Ethernet interface to stream directly from the target device to the PC for display and analysis.
The unstoppable growth of flash memory is creating interesting issues, particularly in ensuring even usage to ensure longer life. I spoke to two companies that are providing tools for managing the issues. Datalight provides file system management software designed to be portable across a range of flash memories, allowing manufacturers to change their memory without having to undergo software changes. The company has recently launched Reliance Edge, designed for IoT applications, with a small footprint and resilience for power failure. It is available as open source or under a commercial license.
HCC Embedded have re-positioned themselves with their mission “to ensure that data stored or communicated by an embedded IoT application is secure, safe and reliable”. They, too, have a file management system specially tuned for flash memory, alongside communications stacks, an RTOS, bootloaders, and encryption products.
Another trend, again often linked to the IoT, is low-power processing. Ambiq Micro was talking up its sub-threshold technology, particularly with the Apollo family of Cortex M4 microcontrollers. Silicon Lab announced the Wireless Gecko family of multiprotocol wireless SoCs, again Cortex M4 based. They provide pick and mix for protocols, including Thread, ZigBee, Bluetooth, and Proprietary protocol. Low power means different things to different people. Where Ambiq and others are measuring low power in sleep mode in nano amps, and in active mode in micro amps, when AMD made an announcement of low power processors in their 3rd generation G-series devices, they are talking in single-figure Watts.
Partnerships and co-operation are always strong features of embedded world. This year, networking and security company Icon Labs and RTOS company Micrium were talking about the integration of Icon Labs’ Floodgate Security Framework with Micrium’s µC/OS-III RTOS.
With all the talk about tools and about safety and security, it was sobering to see the result of the Barr Group’s survey of embedded security. The respondents were a pretty good cross-section of the embedded industry in terms of experience, application areas, and geographical spread. The first jolt was that 22% of the respondents said that the worst possible outcome of their product having problems was that people would die; often there was the potential for multiple deaths. Of these, 67% said that their product met relevant standards, 22% said no, and, perhaps even more worrying, was that 11% didn’t know. Now if you are writing software for applications that could kill people, you would think you would use everything available to make sure that it was of the highest quality. But 30% didn’t use static code analysis, 16% didn’t have coding standards, and around 40% either didn’t or only “maybe” undertook code reviews. All of these are tools that have been proven for decades to improve code quality. Making devices secure, particularly those attached to the Internet, was a concern for about 60%, but there was no consensus on how this could be achieved, even when a hack could kill people.
Well – there is a brief skim through some of what I found in three intense days at embedded world, where, even with back-to-back meetings, I spoke to fewer than 5% of the exhibitors. (And apologies to those who spent time with me but didn’t get mentioned – the information is all filed away for future use, I promise.)
My biggest take-away is that there is a lot of work going on to provide the tools, both hardware and software, that can produce systems that are reliable, safe, and secure. It is up to developers, and often the management in the developing companies, to embrace these tools, if future devices, particularly those in the IoT, are to reach their potential.