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Novel low-cost web appliances emerge

Posted: 26 Mar 2002 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:dhcp? pop3? icmp? smtp? ftp?

More and more pressure is put today on businesses, governments and individuals to gain greater control over what occurs in the field and to be able to respond faster with less resources. Vending machines can intelligently track their own stock levels and automatically place service requests to technicians when running low on a brand of soda or identifying a maintenance problem.

In response to the flourishing demand for these inexpensive Internet and networked devices, the embedded marketplace is beginning to witness a new breed of low-cost, Internet-enabled appliances. Companies with smaller pockets now have the fiscal means to take advantage of these new embedded devices, commonly costing only a few hundred dollars in finished hardware. It is impressive to demonstrate the power of some of the new Internet appliances found in the market place today.

These new devices do not follow the traditional move to operate with a complex OS and x86-based processor, which require sophisticated BIOS and boot routines. Instead, they incorporate a low-overhead RTOS or no OS at all. Software is developed on a standard desktop by compiling code in a variety of common programming languages, including C, C++ and Java. The code is then easily transferred to the device via a common parallel or serial cable, breathing life into a powerful, yet inexpressive network or Internet appliance.

Programmers know that if they can remove the overhead of a complex OS, they can also remove the need for an expensive high-speed processor.

The reality that these devices provide only a small amount of working RAM, Flash and CPU clock speed may lead the skeptic ask, "What about functionality and speed?" New, functionally-rich alternate Single Board Computers (SBC), such as parvus Corporation's ipLINK Web Appliance, can run off raw code for TCP/IP development without being weighted down by a heavy OS or complex CPUi.e. Intel x86. And given the fact that these embedded devices are commonly used as Web/print servers or in monitoring and automation roles, the real-time speed of the task can sometimes even exceed the performance of a higher speed processor, bogged down by a complex OS.

Flexibility components

TCP/IP, the standard of Internet communications, and embedded Web services such as HTTP and FTP are some of the key components that give these devices such great flexibility. Developers can choose to code an HTML-based user interface to manage, control, diagnose and reconfigure products from any point of Internet access. Not only does this allow for a worldwide deployable device, it also provides complete cross-platform compatibility between OSs that supports a Web browser.

Designed around an 8-bit Rabbit 2000 microprocessor, 21 digital I/O points, four serial ports, a 10Base-T Ethernet interface and a PC/104 104-pin connector, the parvus ipLINK give bus support for easily added functionality with little or no engineering required. Other PC/104 cards can be stacked on its compact (9.59-by-8.89cm) form-factor to quickly expand its application. The Rabbit processor out-performs most 16-bit and some 32-bit embedded processors without losing the efficiency of an 8-bit-architecture.

Programming the parvus device is done using a Dynamic C development kit, which supports such communications protocols as DHCP, POP3, ICMP, SMTP, FTP, TFTP and HTTP (includes facilities for SSI, CGI routines, cookies and basic authentication capabilities). The Dynamic C software provides a simple yet powerful C programming environment, which is installed on a desktop machine and then connected to ipLINK's debugging port using a serial programming cable. Whether a novice or veteran in C-code, using such software, a programmer can run a dynamic Web server in little time. The kit also includes comprehensive code samples and documentation. The software does not require any run-time royalties, providing OEMs significant cost savings over the life of their application.

Inexpensive SBC Internet appliances are especially suited to function across Internet, LANs and WANs in such applications as industrial control, factory automation, building and facility management, remote monitoring and control, security, home and office automation, online information kiosks and vending machines.

These devices are paving the road for near complete control of business assets in the field, virtually removing the need to step foot outside of the office for time- and resource-consuming field maintenance. They enable not only lower end-user management and maintenance costs but also development and production costs while not necessarily giving up features. End-users can now remotely manage, control, diagnose and reconfigure using an Internet browser on a handheld device, cellphone or a personal computer.

? Chris Derbidge

Technical Services

Parvus Corp.

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