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Connected Devices: A New Era of Electronics Design

Mon, 08/15/2011 - 6:58am
Bob Potock, Director, Americas Marketing, Altium
Bob PotockAccording to IDC Research, 15 billion devices will be connected to the internet by the year 2015. That is a big jump from the estimated 3 billion today. When we talk about “connected devices” our minds immediately go to mobile devices. But to get to 15 billion, we need to think broader. A company recently introduced the “first” bathroom scale connected to the internet through the home WiFi and another company has a WiFi exercise bike. A few years ago who would have considered making your bathroom scale or exercise bike internet ready? The notion of a connected device is expanding to include everyday household products. The possibilities are endless. So this raises the question – will your next product be connected to the internet?

The New Competitive Requirement
Connectivity is spreading to non-mobile products like bathroom scales, air conditioners, toys and televisions. This connectivity trend is making internet connectivity the new competitive requirement. The challenge that many companies face is the lack of connectivity expertise and intellectual property (IP). Connectivity, like many new technologies, are initially adopted and productized by large companies with the resources to acquire the Figure 1. Platform-based design solution.talent and tools. But as the connectivity technology becomes commoditized small and mid-sized companies can now productize it. Connectivity is becoming mainstreamand will be a competitive requirement just as USB or Secured Digital High Capacity (SDHC) cards are today.

But, connectivity design is more complex because of the large software component (e.g. software stack). Implementing a connected device will require at least a PCB and embedded processor tool chain and possibly a FPGA– three tool chains. Then the WiFi IP will have to be research and acquired.This will include the software device drivers up to the TCP/IP layer.Royalty considerations are also a factor. The three tool-chains and the IP will typically come from multiple vendors and pose integration challenges. Today’s traditional tool-chain solutions do not inherently support IP and are domain focused (e.g. PCB, FPGA, embedded software).An alternative design solution is a platform-basedarchitecture.

Platform Based Connectivity Design
A connectivity design solution requires the unification of hardware, software and IP in a manner that makes it implementable by the mass market. Just as a USB connection is now considered a common feature, so will connectivity.

A platform architecture is unique in that it is layered with a single data model adjacent to a data management layer as the foundation. The data management foundation hosts the authoring tools for multiple domains – PCB, FPGA and embedded software development (Figure 1). This is in contrast to the tool-chain, which is based on tools Figure 2. Generated software stack.with each tool having a unique data model. The platform-based solution presentsa holistic view of the design to the design team as a hierarchical project that includes PCB, FPGA and embedded software development.

Another unique characteristic of the platform is the inclusion of IP. So WiFi, Ethernet and 3G hardware and software IP are part of the design solution just as a USB or SPI peripherals. The connection IP is presented in an IP palette that the user can drag and drop. Not only is the IP included but integrated in a manner such that once the connection IP is added to the design, the software stacks are automatically created up to the TCP/IP layer (Figure 2). The Software Platform Builder creates the software stack based on the IPin the design and then compiles the stacks into libraries and header files. The machine generated libraries and header files are used by the software developer to easily utilize the connection technology via high-level function calls. The design can then be downloaded into a prototype board and the software debugged from the same platform design solution.

Connectivity is Mainstream
If you haven’t considered connecting your product to the internet- it may be time. It will present some challenges in terms of domain expertise and tool flow to the product development teams. The platform based design process will have significant advantages over the traditional tool-chain in building connected devices. The integrated IP in particular will mitigate many of the challenges. It is a connected world! Are you ready?
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