Embedded Systems Conference 2000

At this year's Embedded Systems Conference, Linux loomed large in almost every booth. Talk about a year changing everything.
One Measure of Success

Not surprisingly, this year's EE Times embedded market survey reports a huge jump in the use of Linux as a tool platform among developers, a 1,400% increase over the last 12 months.

Unfortunately, however, useful data was not gathered regarding the use and planned use of Linux—or even Windows—as a target platform in embedded systems, due to what appears to be a catastrophic flaw in the only relevant survey question. The single question on target OSes was worded in a manner that restricted its applicability to only real-time operating systems. The question asked in the survey was: Which of the following commercial real-time operating systems have you (A) used previously, (B) are you currently using or (C) plan to use within the next year? Only RTOSes, such as VxWorks, QNX, LynxOS, OS9, etc., were included in the list of OS choices. Not surprisingly, neither Linux nor Windows showed up in the results.

I strongly recommend that the question be revised so that it encompasses all categories of target system OSes, not specifically real-time ones. Whether the target system requires hard, soft or non-real-time performance should be the subject of a secondary question. Other questions of interest might include connectivity options, standards compliance (like POSIX, for example), etc.

Accelerating from 0 to 100+ in Six Short Months

Another telling measure of the expanding embrace of Linux by the embedded market is the meteoric rise of the Embedded Linux Consortium, which now claims over 114 members. Founded in March 2000 by 22 companies, the ELC held its first general membership meeting at this year's ESC in order to provide an opportunity for members to meet the newly elected board of directors and one another. Attendance at the meeting was estimated to be over 75 members and guests.

After brief talks by ELC chairman Inder Singh and “yours truly” on the state of the embedded Linux market and the mission and objectives of the ELC, and by John Cheuck, vice chairman of EMBLIX (the Japan Embedded Linux Consortium), the ELC began the process of selecting specific projects and activities. To assist that process, a questionnaire will shortly be distributed to ELC members asking for input on what the ELC should do, as well as what each member feels the ELC should not do.

Currently, the consensus appears to be strong for the ELC to stay away from being a standards organization, but, rather, to focus its efforts on building the sense of “Embedded Linux” as a brand. Speaking of which, the ELC has commissioned a permanent logo—one with the obligatory penguin—which the group wants to see strongly promoted by all of its members on their web sites and in their collateral materials.

Other likely projects for the ELC include a much larger booth for trade shows, including the possibility of hosting exhibits from individual members. The ELC may also form working groups to develop guidelines and recommendations that might be submitted to various standards bodies. Other ideas are being solicited.

Growing Architectural Diversity

There certainly seems to be a trend away from embedded PC architecture. That shouldn't be too surprising, given that the embedded PC is, after all, over 15 years old.

Intel's product announcements were roughly equally weighted between the latest embedded Pentium processors and the new StrongARM-derived XScale Microarchitecture. Other X86 processor vendors exhibiting at ESC included STMicroelectronics and ZF Linux Devices, with X86-based system-on-chip products, and AMD with its latest embedded K-series CPUs. Surprisingly, National Semiconductor, maker of the highly popular Geode X86 architecture system-on-chip processors, wasn't an exhibitor at the conference.

ARM, StrongARM, MIPS, PowerPC and other non-X86 architectures were well represented both at the booths of their manufacturers, and also at the booths of tool, OS and board vendors. Zilog, a corporate executive founding member of the ELC, seems to be bouncing back to life, and has revived use of the revered Z80 brand in more modern, connection-oriented processors. Who knows...maybe by next ESC, Zilog will have ported embedded Linux to the Z80!

On the board side, the traditional buses are still around. It's too soon to predict with certainty, but there's a hint of an emerging trend towards busless SBCs based on PowerPC, ARM and MIPS processors. Examples are the ADS Bitsy (StrongARM), Embedded Planet RPX (PowerPC), Intrynsic CerfBoard (StrongARM) and others. Even Ampro, one of the first and most prominent makers of embedded PC SBCs, has announced its intention to roll out MIPS versions of its new EnCore PCI-based platform.