The beginning of the New Year is always time for the Embedded Technology Trends Forum. This forum, presented by the VME International Trade Association (VITA), is an assembly of the board, software, system and component manufacturers involved in the embedded computing marketplace. The purpose of the forum is to present the latest technology trends that affect the embedded computing market. In addition to the suppliers, the primary attendees are the members of the embedded media.
For 2015 the theme for the forum was “Kickoff to Super Technologies“. Each of the companies attending presented their vision of the future of technology as it relates to their business and products. Since the presentations did not focus on products, but on technology and what the embedded customer base is expecting from embedded technology, it was a good source of current thinking in embedded R&D. The forum was a two day event and all of the presentations from the 2015 forum and presentations from past events are available at http://embeddedtechtrends.com/index.php.
VITA as an organization is focused on developing standards for bus-based systems such as VME and VPX but it also develops other standards such as standards for RF data protocols and other technologies that are useful for embedded system use. Although VITA does not focus on industrial PC systems or embedded motherboards, the information presented at the forum was not specific to bus based systems and was relevant to all embedded system applications.
Key Takeaways From the Forum
All of the presentations are available on the website but based on comments and questions heard at the forum there are some key items that should be pointed out.
IoT is Everywhere
Probably the most overused buzz word in the media today is IoT – The Internet of Things. AT CES in January, IoT was also the big item with everything possible being connected to the internet. This was also reinforced at the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, when Google Executive Eric Schmidt said: ”There will be so many sensors, so many devices, that you won’t even sense it, it will be all around you.” Schmidt went on to say: “The Internet will soon be so pervasive in every facet of our lives that it will effectively ‘disappear’ into the background”. Of course some are calling IoT the Internet of Trash due to the seeming useless nature of some of the network attached devices.
In the embedded computing space IoT is a good way of categorizing the inter-connectivity of sensors used in industrial/medical/military applications. Management of the sensor data in both real-time (control) as well as in the background (analytics) is a key requirement of embedded applications. As the amount of data available grows one of the technology challenges is processing the data locally and determining what data needs to be transferred into background storage for analysis. Key to resolving this problem is local processing and high performance data transfer.
Internet of Data
As social enterprise entrepreneur Aral Balkan has said, “There is no Internet of Things. There is only the Internet of Data.” CISCO has been quoted as saying that by the end of 2011, 20 typical households generated more data than the entire internet of 2008. Sparked, a start-up that is using wireless sensors on cattle, reported that each cow transmits 200mb of data per year. During 2008, the number of things connected to the internet exceeded the population of Earth. By 2020, there will be 50 billion connected devices. That is a lot of data being generated.
With IPv6 protocol, we will have 2^128 or 340,282,366,920,938,463,463,374,607,431,768,211,456 possible Internet addresses which has been postulated as 100,000 times bigger than the number of grains of sand that would equal the mass of the Earth.
The data generated by all these devices needs to go somewhere to be analyzed, processed and stored.
The Rise of High Performance Embedded Computing (HPEC)
Embedded systems were traditionally used to control processes, provide user interface capability and process limited data. With the growth of high speed sensors and the need for local processing there is a requirement to provide super computer capability on the factory floor and on mobile platforms. This is being addressed by several companies building cluster based embedded systems that utilize multiple bus based compute boards to implement a high performance computer. These systems are also being designed to work in harsh environments including air-cooled and conduction cooled applications. A typical system may include two or three Intel Core i7 based processor boards, an FPGA based processing board as well as a general purpose graphics (GPGPU) process board. These systems are being used mostly in military applications but as the cost comes down will also be used in many more industrial applications.
HPEC is also a cross over point for 1-6U servers based on Intel Xeon or Core i7 based motherboards. For many applications a 1 or 2U based server with dual Xeon processors and GPGPU cards is a cost effective solution over a VPX or ATCA based system.
Data Transfer is Going Optical
One of the points of consensus at the forum was the need for optical connections between systems and sensors as well as between boards. For high performance systems, the use of a copper backplane to connect boards is becoming obsolete. The data performance of the cooper connections is not fast enough to meet future system requirements. VITA currently has a study group working on a standard specification for optical interconnect with bandwidth of 10Gbps or more.
In addition development work continues on RapidIO and Infiniband standards. Both RapidIO and Infiniband are used not only in providing data transport intersystem but also data transport between systems. Infiniband has been used extensively in super computers and data centers while the use of RapidIO is growing rapidly in the embedded computing market.
Changes in the Landscape
There a lot changes in the embedded computing space. As a consequence of budget cuts and demand to do more with less, the use of traditional bus based systems is decreasing. Although it is predicted that VME/VPX systems will continue to be in demand, the market going forward is flat with VPX overtaking VME based sales in 2017. On the other hand, systems not based on traditional busses are expected to grow. Small systems based on a single motherboard with plug on modules are prolific in the marketplace. Systems based on IA architecture motherboards are also expected to grow in demand. Form factors will not only be the traditional 1-6U rack mount server format but also smaller form factors designed for specific applications.
Overall it looks like the embedded computer market will continue to grow in the future but the types of systems required will change as budgets change and performance expectations increase.