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Tale of a survivor in sea of embedded design

Posted: 01 Apr 2005 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded systems? jack ganssle? consulting? entrepreneur? ice?

Embedded designers' lives undergo turbulent periods when products are delivered late with poorly thought-out specifications. Jack Ganssle, founder of The Ganssle Group consulting firm, has seen it all during his 15 years of running an embedded tool company. Such encounters have subsequently inspired him to take a path with a mission.

Ganssle is now playing the old-time preacher spreading the gospel of the CMM (capability, maturity and model), developed by Carnegie Mellon's Software Engineering Institute. He believes that every device built is an embedded system, that every application is unique and that careful planning and communication are needed to ensure that systems are designed, built and delivered on schedule.

Ganssle has keenly observed the repulsive relationship between developers and their tools. He says that the dissatisfaction level for some tools is alarming. Bugs, poor support, code bloat and a multiplicity of other problems annoy the embedded community. And some vendors ignore this at their own peril.

Another critical factor Ganssle points out is how most designers are unaware that code complexity grows faster than the code size. He says only gifted engineers can predictably deliver quality products on time, on budget and meet the specs.

Keen for tight spots

What Ganssle likes about his job as a consultant is spotting the critical hang-ups that often plague every embedded design project. He offers each juncture practical suggestions and shows how to get better codes and hardware designs by integrating the hardware and software aspects of the project.

As a technical editor for CMP Media Inc.'s Embedded Systems Programming magazine, Ganssle thrives on perfecting the art of building embedded systems to avoid pitfalls. He has authored articles and books on different aspects of embedded design, and has lectured at symposiums and conferences in almost every part of the world.

His books and newsletters cover troubleshooting, real-time performance issues, relations between bosses and co-workers, and tips for building an environment for creative work. His latest book, The Firmware Handbook, provides a detailed reference for design engineers and engineering students. His three other books that deal with embedded design are The Embedded Systems Dictionary (co-authored with Michael Barr), The Art of Designing Embedded Systems and The Art of Programming Embedded Systems.

Lore of experiences

Ganssle's life as an engineer is rich in stories of successes and failures. His passion for electronics began when, as a kid, he kept an electronic lab in his basement packed with surplus electronic equipment, which he constantly fashioned into new devices. Ganssle built a 12bit machine that actually worked. The unit used hundreds of TTL chips wired on a vectorboard, with brightly colored telephone cables soldered directly to each chip's pins. By the time Ganssle turned 16, he already had a Ham Radio license.

Ganssle entered the engineering profession back when the first microprocessor was invented. In college, he took part in developing an 8bit microprocessor, called the 8008.

Years later, Ganssle started his first consulting firm with a friend. Together they built custom embedded systems for different clients. The products included a security system for the White House that used over a hundred tightly-coupled 8bit CPUs. The next was a variety of deep-ocean probes that measured O2, temperature, salinity, currents and other parameters. The probes ran on small batteries and consisted of RCA 1802, which was the only CMOS processor at that time. Later, they built a system that also used RCA 1802 to measure how fruit ripens while being shipped across the oceans.

Ganssle developed a 12-ton gauge that moved on railroad tracks as it measured the thickness of white-hot steel. The system used a PDP-11 minicomputer interfaced to various 8bit microprocessors. Here, Ganssle learned all about shielding, differential transmission and building smart software to ignore transients.

But cash was insufficient, so Ganssle did consulting work during the day and wrote proprietary software at night. His first take on software was MTBASIC, a basic compiler for the Z80 microprocessor that supported multitasking. For the development platform, Ganssle built a Z80 CP/M machine using a 40 character-wide TV monitor and a single floppy disk whose controller was a half-PCB of discrete logic. The compiler targeted embedded applications and was interactive like an interpreter, yet produced native compiled code that could be ROMed. Ganssle was able to sell some 10,000 copies of the MTBASIC for $30 each.

PC days

The world took notice of the microprocessor industry with the launch of IBM PC in 1981. Ganssle bought a PC, ported the MTBASIC, recoded it in 8088 assembly and soon he had found a willing market. But despite brisk sales, advertising consumed most of his profits, so Ganssle carried on his consulting work. He developed a simple in-circuit emulator for a customer who needed a battery-operated data collection system. Since tools for CPUs did not exist at the time, the emulator worked surprisingly well.

When Eureka hit the industry, Ganssle started developing emulators. The NSC800, being so similar to the Z80 and 8085, drove Ganssle to expand the product line. The hardware design comprised of 17 chips was rather simple. The emulation processor was also the ICE-controlled CPU. Ganssle sold the units for $595 each. Again, because of advertising and operational overhead, cash burned at a scary rate even if parts and labor cost a mere $100.

Over time, Ganssle learned the basic law of the embedded tool market: keep prices high. Every application is distinctive, so customer support is enormously expensive.

The engineer, who once quit his job to sail around the world, but later discovered his enthusiasm in electronics, is a survivor in a sea of embedded systems. Having been in the industry for 30 years, Ganssle learned that the embedded revolution is one of the greatest outcomes of the troubled 20th century.

An empiricist in his field, Gannsle takes pride in his work. His own accounts of embedded-system breakdowns shaped his determination to help other people with their embedded challenges.

- Kathryn Gerardino

Electronic Engineering Times-Asia

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