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Plug-and-play embedded modules rest on FPGAs

Posted: 11 Dec 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ultimodule? interconnect? fpga?

Taking a page from the history of board-level computer systems and adding several bits of new technology, startup Ultimodule Inc. has announced a complete do-it-yourself tool kit for embedded-systems development.

The tool kit contains a small-form-factor CPU and I/O boards, an interconnect and backplane scheme, software intellectual property (IP) and development tools. The product line, based on an internal development methodology created by industrial-equipment vendor Exor International, is being marketed for the first time through Ultimodule, an Exor subsidiary.

The Ultimodule concept is based on a family of interchangeable, plug-and-play circuit boards that offers systems developers a range of 32-bit and 64-bit CPUs, memory options, access to peripherals and Ethernet, and application-specific I/O. Each board is self-contained, with its own control logic, firmware or driver support, and interface to the system bus.

The concept, which involves plugging 40 x 65-mm modules into custom carrier boards, is said to provide greater flexibility for developers. "The smaller form factor allows you to devise a carrier board that is suitable for your particular environment," said Ultimodule president Melissa Jones. "From there, you can add modules as needed for additional compute power."

Jones said the concept lets users create handheld devices or portable instruments about the size of a toaster. It can also be used in the construction of robotics, industrial controllers, motion controllers, building automation and surveillance systems, as well as in automotive and aerospace applications.

One key to the system is an internal bus to which up to 127 modules can be connected. That bus, the UltiWire, is a proprietary design produced within Exor. A 48-Mbit/second single-wire serial link with its own protocol, the bus was designed to be both efficient and reliable as a link between the relatively autonomous boards, Jones said, and is fully supported by all the cards.

In a system, the bus originates at a CPU card and daisychains through the I/O modules, combining simplicity and low latency. Since the modules are relatively autonomous, most bus traffic is command-level rather than detailed data or time-critical signals from within feedback loops, so the performance of the serial link is adequate, Jones said.

The CPU module now available includes a MIPS processor from Integrated Device Technology, a Spartan FPGA from Xilinx, 4 Mbytes of SDRAM, 512 kbytes of flash, 64 kbytes of serial E2PROM and a 16-Mbyte SmartMedia flash chip on a 38 x 66-mm board. I/O modules include 24-volt I/O boards, analog input boards, CanOpen, Profibus and DeviceNet interface modules, and specialized boards for machine and engine control, motion measurement and control, and battery management. Software includes an eCos embedded operating system, a variety of bus and device drivers, TCP/IP, FTP and Web software, and a variety of control applications modules. Both Windows CE and embedded Linux offerings are planned. Ultimodule says it will introduce additional software and I/O modules rapidly, and has plans for 64-bit MIPS, as well as ARM and PowerPC CPU modules.

The boards all connect to any of a range of carrier boards, which form both backplanes for the modules and interfaces between the system and the outside world via Ethernet, FieldBus and serial interfaces. A graphic, drag-and-drop design environment provides the user's primary interface to the system from early system simulation through real-time debug.

The technology keys to the architecture, Jones said, are the UltiWire bus and the FPGAs on essentially every module in the system. The FPGAs provide hardware functionality to each module, and in some cases driver support as well. For example, the FPGA on the CPU module implements the CPU interface, keyboard, touch panel, LCD and video controllers, communications interfaces, UltiWire bus interface and debug controller. The FPGA, in effect, isolates the detailed hardware design of any particular module from the system, permitting a user, for instance, to unplug one type of CPU module and try a different one without affecting the system hardware.

The concept could have potential for developers who are trying to squeeze more computing power into smaller packages, industry observers said last week.

Venture Development Corp. said that as many as 39 vendors now supply computer-on-module technology, but added that Ultimodule's use of FPGA technology takes the idea a step further.

"The concept of computer-on-module is growing because it lets you shorten the time-to-market and lessen your risk," said Eric Gulliksen, project director for Venture Development. "Extending that concept to configurable systems is definitely a promising idea."

At the same time, however, Gulliksen said that Ultimodule's use of a new form factor and internal bus could limit its popularity among developers gravitating toward open standards. "This makes a lot of sense for certain applications," Gulliksen said. "But using a proprietary bus and form factor, it's going to take a while to catch on."

Ultimodule executives said they plan to open up the technology and make it available to partners around the globe that would work with customers to create carrier boards for their applications.

"We're giving customers a great deal of flexibility to work with local vendors to make these carrier boards," Jones said. The company's carrier boards are currently built by Exetec SA (Rancate, Switzerland), an electronics contractor.

In addition to an Eclipse-based design suite, Ultimodule will offer ISaGraf with structured-text, ladder-diagram, sequential-chart and functional-block-diagram interfaces, so there will be an entry point familiar to just about every industrial, building or automotive designer.

The initial product, a $695 starter kit, includes a CPU module, carrier board with 24-V capability, optically isolated I/O board, power supply, debug cable and development software. In addition to rolling out more boards, operating systems and software modules, Ultimodule plans to extend its business model beyond just board sales. The company will provide its hardware IP under license, undertaking custom carrier boards for specific applications, offering design assistance and extending manufacturing rights to customers. So the company can take a customer all the way from initial system-exploration breadboards through full production, Jones said.

System designs done with the Ultimodule architecture can fend off obsolescence by simply substituting newer modules for obsolete ones without disrupting the system-an important hedge against the dreaded end-of-life purchase, the company said. They can also migrate to higher levels of integration, either by following Moore's Law progress of FPGA technology to include more modules in a single FPGA on a single board, or by moving to a structured-ASIC type of implementation. Ultimodule is still exploring this latter approach, while exploitation of the FPGA road map is already a planned strategy.

- Ron Wilson and Charles J. Murray

EE Times

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