Modular Embedded Design to Accelerate IoT Proliferation Published by:
CHAIRMAN Modular kitchens are widely popular in households nowadays. It leverages the concept of modularity to add convenience, & customization and optimize cost. In simple terms, modularity means that a system can be built by assembling many small units. Modularity is used extensively in many industries such as transport & logistics, packaging, software and many more. The benefits are enormous in terms of reduction of system development time & cost and addition of scalability, convenience, and customization. In this article, we will explore how adopting modular approach in embedded development of IoT devices can accelerate the proliferation of IoT. Before we move ahead, let’s start with some basics. First coined by Kevin Ashton back in 1999, the phrase has evolved a lot over time. In simple terms, the phrase can mean ‘Pervasive Connectivity’. IoT promises an era, in which discrete things or objects are connected through internet or other connectivity mediums, and these objects individually or collectively achieve some meaningful result.
CHAIRMAN Few fields that are showing promising IoT applications are Smart Homes, Smart Cities, Security & Assistance, Connected Vehicles, Industrial Automation, Healthcare, Wearables, and many more. With the advent of pervasive connectivity, cognizance has entered into the non-living realm. Things or objects can now take autonomous decisions based on some events, without human intervention. Although the IoT ecosystem is colossal, at the ground level, it is supported by embedded devices that has some processing power, memory, and some real world connectivity interfaces (I/Os) such as UART, Ethernet, WiFi, Bluetooth, etc. Embedded devices such as sensors and gateways play an important role in driving IoT. Sensors are compact, power-efficient, application-specific devices that monitor the ambient environment and pass on the information, using internet or other connectivity medium, to a gateway that processes the data and take some actions. As gateways may receive data from multiple sensors, they therefore need some processing power, memory and a set of connectivity interfaces. An industrial plant monitoring system can be easily made with few sensors and a gateway.
CHAIRMAN The sensors can monitor variety of parameters such as plant temperature, vibration, humidity, etc. and pass on the information to a gateway. The gateway receives the data and checks for any faults. In case of any abnormal condition like high humidity, it can send a message to the smart-phone of the plant technician. In case, everything is normal, then the gateway can upload the data to a cloud-server for analytics and maintenance records. Now, let’s take a look at the embedded development of sensors and gateways. Usually, sensors are simple, application-specific & standardized, micro-controller based devices. The gateways need to be versatile in terms of computing, storage and connectivity requirements, thus the embedded development of these devices becomes a bit challenging. There are many standardized gateways available in the market; however, there may be scenarios where these gateways shall not fulfill your price, performance, power, or connectivity requirements. In the remaining article, we will explore constraints in various embedded platforms that are currently employed for development of embedded devices such as gateways and then make an attempt to showcase how concept of modularity can be leveraged to reduce time-to-market and development cost of IoT devices.
CHAIRMAN Product Development from Scratch or Chip Based Development Usually, OEMs prefer to develop the hardware and software from scratch as it offers them total control over the project and they can customize the platform based on their requirements. The hardware components such as SoC, memory, power supplies, multimedia & connectivity interfaces, peripherals, display, etc. are integrated over a printed circuit board (PCB). The software stack including device drivers, board support packages, UI, application, etc. are developed either in-house or some parts are outsourced by the OEMs. Constraints • Boost NRE (Non-Recurring Engineering) cost: High investment in engineering development, design and test as the product is developed from scratch. Further, product development time is long that leads to inflated engineering cost. • High input cost: Usually, sales volume of embedded products is low. So, OEMs cannot leverage economics of scale in low volume procurement of critical components such as SoC, Flash, RAM, and thus pay higher price.
CHAIRMAN • Long time-to-market: As the development happens from scratch, the development time increases, and thus long time-to-market. • High development risk: With scratch development of hardware and software, there is a high probability that things may go wrong at any level. This adds significant risk to the project compromising time-to-market and development cost. • Questionable scalability: With Moore’s Law in action, the silicon components such as SoC, are getting matured in terms of performance, power-efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. However, it is impossible to scale up an embedded platform developed from scratch, as the CPU, memory, and I/Os are integrated on a single PCB. It needs a redesign that is time-consuming and expensive. • Product Risk: There is a substantial risk associated with the supply chain of the end-product in case any silicon components (SoC, RAM, Flash memory) reach End of Life.
CHAIRMAN Single Board Computer (SBC) SBCs offer a ready-to-use embedded platform on a single PCB for developing any end-product. The OEMs select single board computersthat are best suited for their requirements and then develop the end-application. Although, SBCs are application-ready, they suffer from few loopholes. Constraints • Not scalable: It is not possible to scale up or adapt your application developed on a SBC, as the CPU is closely coupled with the I/O section on a single PCB. • No customization: Customizing a SBC, based on the OEMs’ requirements, is not possible as the I/Os are already fixed on the PCB. • Fixed size: Space constrained applications may struggle to use SBC as the size and I/O configuration may not be ideal.
CHAIRMAN Currently, low-cost SBCs such as Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone are really popular in the embedded market. These open-source and community-backed platforms can also be used to develop IoT products. These SBCs are ideal for DIY and academic projects. However, these SBCs are not appropriate for commercial development of embedded products. • Not industrial hardware (temperature range, vibration). • No committed or dedicated support in terms of software and hardware. • Product lifecycle is not guaranteed. • No product change notification policy.
Application specific partHardware – Peripherals, Display, I/O Software – Application, UI Application agnostic part Hardware – SoC, Flash memory, RAM Software – Operating System, Device Drivers, Board Support Packages CHAIRMAN Introducing modularity in embedded design An embedded platform can be represented as below:
The ‘Application Agnostic’ part consists of essential design commodities, including the processing & memory requirements. This part may not differ much whether the end-product is a medical device or a home-automation product, assuming the processing and memory requirements are somewhat similar. This ‘Application Specific’ part constitutes both the hardware and software, depending on the application and OEMs requirements. OEMs can differentiate their products from those of their competitors by adding value to this part, as the end-user interact and experience this part. A Computer on Module (COM) or System on Module (SOM) is a cost-effective, reliable and ready-to-use computing solution that consists of the application-agnostic hardware and software. System developers can focus on the application-specific part by using an off-the-shelf COM, and thus accelerate time-to-market without compromising on product development cost and risk CHAIRMAN
OEM ‘Builds’ Application specific partHardware – Carrier Board, Peripherals, Display Software – Application, UI OEM ‘Buys’ Application agnostic part Computer on Module CHAIRMAN The revamped architecture after using COM is shown below. The combination of an application-agnostic COM and application-specific carrier board, which houses the I/Os on a PCB, along with display and peripherals, offers a complete platform for developing any end-products. The COM can be inserted into the carrier board through some standard connector such as SODIMM connector in the image below. Many COM suppliers also offer off-the-shelf compatible carrier boards.
CHAIRMAN Figure 2: An illustration of Viola - A small form-factor (74 mm x 74mm), ultra-low cost Carrier Board from Toradex
CHAIRMAN Usually, off-the-shelf carrier boards may not fulfill packaging, I/O configuration, functional, cost, and size requirements for a specific application, so OEMs prefer to develop and design their own carrier board. Development of custom carrier boards can be really made easy in case the layout and schematics files of compatible carrier boards are shared by the COM suppliers.
CHAIRMAN The ‘Build vs Buy’ Dilemma Usually, OEMs prefer chip-based development; however, as mentioned above, there are many constraints in this approach. A COM addresses these constraints effectively. • Reduce development cost: COM vendors procure silicon components such as SoC, Memory, etc. in high volume, thus pay less than OEMs for their low volume procurement. By using an off-the-shelf COM, OEMs can leverage economies of scale to bring down input cost. Further, OEMs can only focus on developing the application-specific part of their product, and thus reduce NRE cost. • Accelerate time-to-market: As the COM offers an application-ready platform, OEMs can accelerate the time-to-market for their products. • Reduce development risk: COMs are extensively tested by the suppliers and other customers, so OEMs can significantly reduce their product development risk by using COMs in embedded development. • Platform scalability: Some COM suppliers such as Toradex offer pin-compatible Computer on Modules with a variety of performance, price, and I/Os. OEMs can easily scale up their platforms to accommodate future market demands and latest technologies.
CHAIRMAN Figure 3: Pin-compatible COMs from Toradex
CHAIRMAN Toradex is a Switzerland based company that designs and develops ARM based COMs powered by Freescale® i.MX 6 & Vybrid™, NVIDIA® Tegra™, and Marvell® XScale™ PXA SoCs. Apart from offering an extensive range of pin-compatible COMs, Toradex stands out in the embedded computing market with its product reliability & longevity, free premium support and transparent pricing. Toradex also offers schematics and layout files of compatible carrier boards, so customers can easily develop custom carrier boards suiting their end-application. • Access to latest technology: Usually, market leaders of silicon components such as SoC, Flash memory, do not engage with low volume customers, so OEMs may struggle to get access to latest technological advances. COMs vendors ensure the adoption of such technologies in the embedded devices by engaging in large volume business with market leaders of silicon components.
CHAIRMAN COM/ SOM for IoT products It can be summed up that COM/ SOM offers an ideal platform for developing embedded devices including IoT products. IoT is still in nascent stage and many discussions around IoT create more questions than answers. Growth of IoT is restricted by many issues such as lack of uniform communication standard, ambiguous revenue model, questionable utility, security threat, etc. We can expect the IoT products will evolve gradually to alleviate these issues. So, the embedded platform, which is the foundation of IoT, should be scalable and flexible to adapt as per future needs. With advances in semiconductor technology, we can expect advanced security features that will make the silicon components more ideal for IoT. Migration to the latest semiconductor technology is easily possible in an embedded platform using COM, as the processing & memory section is isolated from the I/O section. Toradex is ideally placed to meet the demands of IoT market. It offers ARM based COMs at variety of price, performance, and power to match the diverse needs of IoT market.
CHAIRMAN Further, the availability of connectivity interfaces such as Gbit Ethernet, PCIe, SATA, CAN, and many more industrial interfaces, makes these COMs suitable for wide range of IoT applications. The COMs are pin-compatible, thus upgrading the platform, based on future needs and technology, is feasible without any re-design effort. It also offers standardized carrier boards that are compatible with the COMs. Custom carrier board development is also easy as the carrier boards’ schematic and layout files are freely downloadable. Customers can easily use these files as reference for designing their custom carrier boards. IoT will have a tremendous impact on enhancing our lives in future. We will see exponential growth of compelling IoT applications; however, the cost of adoption will also determine user acceptance and market penetration. Therefore, the foundation of this IoT pillar should be flexible and cost-effective to drive the IoT proliferation. COM/ SOM offers an ideal platform or foundation for making this possible.