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Software sol'ns transform embedded designs

Posted: 16 Oct 2006 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:AP7000? Embedded Systems Conference? ESC-Taiwan? Altera? Atmel?

If anything was reinforced at this year's Embedded Systems Conference (ESC-Taiwan) in Taipei, it's how software solutions are complementing the silicon world. From Altera to Atmel to Ceva, companies showcased processors, development tools and intellectual property offerings for embedded designs.

Low-cost FPGAs are hitting a new tipping point as they provide greater adaptability to design engineers, thus enabling a mindset shift toward system architecture. That's how Chris Balough, director of software and Nios marketing for Altera Corp., described their traction at ESC-Taiwan as he spoke with EE Times-Asia about the role of low-cost FPGAs in embedded design.

Balough acknowledged that the FPGA has retained some characteristics that make it less suitable for certain embedded applications. "Think of the FPGA as a processor and how it can perform a lot of functions of a concurrent processor by offloading certain tasks, thus freeing discrete processor for other tasks and reducing clock frequency that will lead to less power."

Moving certain functions from hardware to low-cost FPGAs thus promises design engineers greater flexibility. "An FPGA supporting a traditional processor solution with discrete peripherals for analog and memory functions just complements the one-chip solution," Balough added.

Architecture shift
He said the new architectural shift underlines a strategy of finding a low-cost processor and putting everything else on an FPGA. And with embedded processors like Nios II, design engineers can save cost and power as a result of lower clock speed.

According to Balough, FPGA companies have historically been working with hardware guys. "But as we move to a new design era in which concurrent compute engines enable multicore processors, the FPGA industry is increasingly talking to software people and system architects."

He also pointed to the evolution of FPGA tools and how its growing sophistication is making a dramatic transformation, gradually revealing the creation of ASIC-like tools for both analysis and optimization. "FPGA firms are adopting the ASIC model when it comes to design tools," said Balough.

Atmel Corp. meanwhile, is also making a shift, as revealed by Arild Rodland, the company's technical marketing manager for Asia. "There is a shift from ASSP business to developing a broad portfolio of AVR-based 32bit microcontrollers for RF, security and automotive applications," said Rodland.

Rodland added that Atmel will be launching a number of reference design solutions and low-cost development tools in Asia.

Atmel showcased the AP7000 family of 32bit processors based on its AVR architecture at ESC-Taiwan.

The chipmaker claimed these are the first processors to be architected specifically for 21st century applications that require both performance and low power consumption.

The silicon solution integrates a vectored multiplier coprocessor, 32Kbyte on-chip SRAM, 16Kbyte instruction and 16Kbyte data caches. Peripherals include a 16bit stereo audio DAC, 2,048pixel x 2,048pixel TFT/STN LCD controllers, 480Mbps USB 2.0 with on-chip transceivers (PHY), and two 10/100 Ethernet MACs. The processor is able to execute compute-intensive algorithms required for today's applications at a lower clock rate and substantially less power consumption, according to the company.

Software power
Taiwan is now winning attention from companies like Ceva Inc., a supplier of DSP cores and IP solutions for multimedia and storage devices. The IP firm vowed to up the ante in its Taiwan operations with increased local presence. Gweltaz Toquet, Ceva's VP for Asia sales, acknowledged Taiwan's leading role in multimedia and mobile communications designs, adding that Ceva's portfolio of DSPs and programmable multimedia solutions will help Taiwan's chip and system houses develop multistandard products for portable multimedia market.

Ceva recently scored a design win with Alliantek Inc., a mobile communications ODM in Taiwan, for its DSP-based multimedia system platform. Alliantek is adopting CEVA-X1620 DSP and CEVA-XS 1200 system platform for its portable multimedia products.

- Majeed Ahmad
Electronic Engineering Times-Asia

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