Gone are the days when embedded systems were a part of complex industrial and defence equipment alone. Today, these have found place in washing machines, microwave ovens, cars and, thanks to mobile phones, in almost everybody’s pockets too! Quite naturally, the increase in demand and applications continues to fuel innovations in embedded systems technology on an almost daily basis. This article brings to you some of the significant recent developments in this field
1. Multi-core magic in mobiles and other devices
“One key trend that is taking the world by storm is the rise of ‘multi-core.’ This year’s Consumer Electronics Show played host to multiple mobile devices running on dual-core CPUs, and soon we will see devices further enhanced with tri-core and multi-core processors,” says Guru Ganesan, managing director, ARM India.
In a recent report titled ‘Multi-core Components and Tools,’ published by the Venture Development Corporation, it was indicated that 8.4 per cent of the respondents were using a multi-core architecture on their current project. Of those currently using single-processor architectures, 14.3 per cent reported that they expected to be using multi-core processor architectures within the next two years.
There are many reasons why multi-core processors are slowly replacing single-core processors. Each processor in a multi-core system works independently, allowing the user to multi-task with ease, speed and flexibility.It also works well when the CPU needs to perform complex steps, as the multiple cores work together to complete these tasks faster. Further, multi-core processors are also more power-efficien, so the users are able to do more without having to charge their phones frequently. This also helps the industry meet various energy- and environment-related goals and regulations.
“For these reasons, especially from the power consumption aspect, I believe multi-core processors will be a game-changer in the electronics industry. Dual-core is quickly becoming main-stream and devices running on quad-core processors are likely to see light in 2012. I believe that such technology step-ups on processor designs will increase the capabilities of smartphones. It certainly seems like multi-core is here to stay and is the stepping stone to ‘many-core’ processors,” says Ganesan.
In order to harness the full potential of such processors, we also need real-time operating systems and applications that are designed from the ground-up to think and act as per the parallel processing philosophies. There is no point in treating a multi-core like just another fast processor—the parallel processing ability is the actual benefitthat needs to be leveraged in the long run, and this needs truly parallel applications as well.
2. Virtualisation enters the embedded domain
Venkatesh Kumaran, country manager, Wind River, points out that not just multi-core technology but virtualisation is also gaining momentum. Much has been said and done about server and desktop virtualisation, but now the IT industry has realised that there is a lot of scope for virtualisation in the embedded domain too. The flexibility,parallel processing, enhanced processor utilisation and other benefitsof virtualisation have been found to be very useful in mobile phones, tablet PCs and deeply-embedded avionics and automotive applications.
Embedded virtualisation refers to a type-1 hypervisor deployed within an embedded system. Type-1 hypervisor is a special type of operating system that runs directly on the bare hardware. It allows multiple virtual machines or applications to use the underlying hardware platform without bothering about the technical complexity or even knowing that they are sharing a system. Embedded hypervisors are a hybrid of a virtualisation platform and a microkernel, which allows these to support VMs as well as individual applications.
In general, embedded hypervisors implement a different kind of abstraction with different constraints than other platforms. For example, embedded hypervisors must be small and extremely efficientin their use of memory—since memory tends to be one of the key limiters to performance in embedded environments. Within this small footprint, the virtualisation platform also needs to implement a lot of security measures, as embedded systems are often a part of a larger network of devices.
Most importantly, the embedded hypervisor must support scheduling with real-time capabilities. In the case of handsets, the hypervisor can share the platform with core communication capabilities and third-party applications. Scheduling with real-time characteristics allows the critical functions to coexist with applications that operate on a best-effort basis. Some of the existing embedded virtualisation solutions include PikeOS, OKL4, NOVA and Codezero.
3. operating system becomes mandatory, software turns more complex
Kumaran points out, “The operating system (OS) is becoming mandatory on every device, and the software code per device has also increased substantially.”
Older embedded systems could do away with a formal OS and manage with just small control programs for a limited set of input/output (I/O) and memory services. But, the complexity as well as security and safety concerns of the embedded systems now used in communication systems, consumer electronics, industrial control, automotive, aerospace and defence applications have shifted the focus from light-weight, in-house control systems to proven, commercial operating systems.
The demand for low latency, low footprint, real-time operating systems (RTOS) that can handle standard functions memory protection, error checking and reporting, and transparent inter-process communications is increasing. At the same time, the multi-core trend is pushing the capabilities of operating systems further, as there is a need to handle multiple proces-sors, processes, tasks, threads and boards.
Not just the operating systems but the software running on each device has also increased in quantity and complexity. Of course, this poses greater challenges to software engineers as the development of software for embedded systems has to adhere to a completely different set of rules and priorities—such as greater focus on reducing the footprint and response times. As in the case of operating systems, the multi-core trend is putting a great pressure on software applications too, since they need to be strongly grounded on a ‘parallel’ thought process.
As in any emerging space, Open Source is playing an important role here too. Open operating systems and tool-chains for embedded systems, such as Android and Eclipse, respectively, are becoming increasingly popular.
4. Increasing security requirements
The security features built into an embedded system are growing into key differentiators today. This is because of the increasing networking capabilities of embedded systems, and the integration of embedded systems with more complex applications.
One of the obvious examples in today’s scenario is the mobile phone. A mobile phone is almost a personal computer today—it holds critical applications as well as data. It connects to a variety of networks to transmit and receive data. A security breach could prove to be very expensive.
Likewise, consider other embedded systems that are used in defence equipment or industrial machinery. These are very likely to connect to a larger army network or enterprise-wide application. A security breach in one little sensor could prove to be fatal to the whole network. Thanks to these scary scenarios, the demand for embedded platforms with tight security features is very high today.
This, however, is no mean task—because once again, the rules of embedded systems design come into play. The security features have to be imbibed into the system without increasing the size or decreasing the speed of the system noticeably.
5.The start of a cloud computing era
“Last year witnessed many trends in the embedded space, like OS vendors also developing processors and vice versa, the emergence of ARM as a powerful competitor to Intel chips, the consolidation of semiconductor vendors and multi-core support in embedded systems (say, ARM Cortex-A9), but the greatest was the foundation of cloud computing laid in the embedded systems,” says Sridharan Mani, director and CEO, American Megatrends India.
The last year has seen the IT industry working seriously on combining the benefitsof embedded computing and cloud computing—metaphorically, taking the little drops of water to the mighty ocean. Scalable edge node (SEN) and server platforms happen to be the key step in this transition. SEN is a dense, flexiblehardware platform that would reside on the edge of a network of embedded systems—be it in a factory floor or an aeroplane.
The main job of SEN is to provide connectivity between the various applications of the network and the cloud, so that the intelligence gained by the embedded systems can be transferred to a larger application on the cloud for analysis and processing. It is estimated that in such a scenario, over 80 per cent of the analysis and processing will be shifted from the embedded systems to the cloud.
“SENs would enable clouds to be deployed across different value propositions and also enable scalability. The transition has started to happen and it would be interesting to see how it scales,” says Mani.
Currently, embedded cloud computing solutions are available from companies like Digi, Eurotech and National Instruments. They have been deployed in smart power grids, medical communicators, environment monitors and defence equipment. Microsoft also recently announced that it is in a position to offer customers a composite platform that spans from the endpoint device to the back-end cloud computing infrastructure. Much more of such work is happening across the industry, and it would be interesting to wait and watch what the union of embedded and cloud computing is going to yield.
With such high capabilities, it is not surprising that embedded systems are findingmore and more applications—in the dashboards of automobiles, entertainment devices, mobile phones, inventory systems, industrial equipment, security and surveillance networks, medical equipment and so on. This is a good vicious cycle—with technological development encouraging more usage, and increasing usage fuelling more technological growth. We are surely in for an exciting time with these technological trends strengthening and many more emerging in the near future.
The author is a technically-qualified freelance writer, editor and hands-on mom based in Chennai