The Future of 8-Bit Chips (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Ever since the time when a Sony Walkman retailed for around $200, engineers of all backgrounds and skill levels have been prognosticating the imminent death of 8-bit chips. No matter your age, you’ve likely heard the “8-bit is dead” argument more than once. And you’ll likely hear it a few more times over the next several years.

Long-time Circuit Cellar contributor Tom Cantrell has been following the 8-bit saga for the last 25 years. In Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, he offers his thoughts on 8-bit chips and their future. Here’s a sneak peek. Cantrell writes:

“8-bit is dead.”  Or so I was told by a colleague. In 1979. Ever since then, reports of the demise of 8-bit chips have been greatly, and repeatedly, exaggerated. And ever since then, I’ve been pointing out the folly of premature eulogizing.

I’ll concede the prediction is truer today than in 1979—mainly, because it wasn’t true at all then. Now, some 30-plus years later, let’s reconsider the prospects for our “wee” friends…

Let’s start the analysis by putting on our Biz101 hats. If you Google “Product Life Cycle” and click on “Images,” you’ll see a variety of somewhat similar graphs showing how products pass through stages of growth, maturity, and decline. Though all the graphs tell a rise-and-fall story, it’s interesting to note the variations. Some show a symmetrical life cycle that looks rather like a normal distribution. But the majority of the graphs show a “long-tail” variation in which the maturity phase lasts somewhat longer and the decline is relatively gradual.

Another noteworthy difference is how some graphs define life and death in terms of “sales” and others “profits.” It stands to reason that no business will continue to sell at a loss indefinitely, but the market knows how to fix that. Even if some suppliers wave the white flag, those that remain can raise prices and maintain profitability as long as there is still demand.

One of the more interesting life cycle variations shows that innovation, like a fountain of youth, can stave off death indefinitely. An example that comes to mind is the recent introduction of ferroelectric RAM (FRAM) MCUs. FRAM has real potential to reduce power consumption and also streamlines the supply chain because a single block of FRAM can be arbitrarily partitioned to emulate any mix of read-mostly or random access memory (see Photo 1). They may be “mature” products, but today the Texas Instruments MSP430 and Ramtron 8051 are leading the way with FRAM.

Photo 1: Ongoing innovation, such as the FRAM-based “Wolverine” MCU from Texas Instruments, continues to expand the market for mini-me MCUs. (Source: Cantrell CC25)

And “innovation” isn’t limited to just the chips themselves. For instance, consider the growing popularity of the Arduino SBC. There’s certainly nothing new about the middle-of-the-road, 8-bit Atmel AVR chip it uses. Rather, the innovations are with the “tools” (simplified IDE), “open-source community,” and “sales channel” (e.g., RadioShack). You can teach an old chip new tricks!

Check out the upcoming anniversary issue for the rest of Cantrell’s essay. Be sure to let us know what you think about the future of the 8-bit chip.

The Future of FPGAs (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) have been around for more than two decades. What does the future hold for this technology? According to Halifax, Canada-based electrical engineering consultant Colin O’Flynn, current FPGA-related research and recent innovations seem to presage a coming revolution in digital system design, and this could lead to striking fast advances in several fields of engineering.

In the upcoming Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue—which is slated for publication in early 2013—O’Flynn shares his thoughts on the future of FPGA technology. He writes:

Field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) provide a powerful means to design digital systems (see Photo 1). Rather than writing a software program, you can design a number of hardware blocks to perform your tasks at blazing speeds…

Photo 1: Source: C. O’Flynn, CC 25th Anniversary issue

Microcontrollers have long played the peripheral game: the integration of easy-to-use dedicated peripherals onto the same physical chip as your digital core. FPGAs, it would seem, have no use for dedicated logic, since you can just design everything exactly as you desire. But dedicated logic has its advantages.

Beyond technical advantages, such as lower power consumption or smaller area with dedicated cores compared to programmable cores, dedicated cores can also reduce development effort. For example, current technology sees FPGAs with integrated high-end ARM cores, capable of running Linux on the integrated hard-core. Anyone familiar with setting up Linux on an ARM-based microprocessor can use this, without needing to learn about how one develops cores and peripherals on the FPGA itself.
Beyond integrating digital cores to simplify development, you can expect to see the integration of analog peripherals. Looking at the microcontroller market, you can find a variety of tightly integrated SoC devices with analog and digital on a single device. For instance, a variety of radio devices contain a complete RF front-end combined with a digital microcontroller. While current FPGA devices offer very limited analog peripherals (most have none), having a FPGA with an integrated high-speed ADC or DAC would be the making of a highly flexible radio-on-a-chip platform. The high development cost and lack of a current market has meant this remains only an interesting idea. To see where this market comes from, let’s look at some applications for such an FPGA.

Software-Defined Radio
Software-defined radio (SDR) takes a curious approach to receiving radio waves: digitize it all, and let software sort it out. The radio front-end is simple. Typically, the center frequency of interest is just downshifted to the baseband, everything else is filtered out, and a high-speed ADC digitizes it. All the demodulation and decoding then can be down in software. Naturally, this can require some fast sampling speeds. Anything from 20 to 500 MSps is fairly typical for these systems. Dealing with this much data is suited to FPGAs, since one can generate blocks to perform all the different functions that operate simultaneously…

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.

Principles of Embedded System Design (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

You have an idea an idea for an innovative microcontroller-based design? Once you start start soldering and wiring, you might want to keep an eye on Bob Japenga’s checklist of essential embedded system design principle. His complete list will appear in Circuit Cellar‘s 25th Anniversary issue, which will be available in early 2013. But since many of you will be attempting to complete projects before January 1, we’re giving you a sneak peek.

Japenga writes:

We all know that old adage: “If you don’t have time to do it right the first time, where do you find the time to do it right the second?” But this is the nature of developing robust embedded systems. There are literally thousands of little decisions that we make even in the simplest of projects. How can we minimize repeating mistakes?

So my goal in this article is twofold: to celebrate with Circuit Cellar 25 years of great service to us engineers and to hammer home some of those principles that we so often forget. I will divide the essentials into four categories: general essentials, essentials that exist because things (i.e., us and our designs) fail, essentials about testing, and essentials about memory use.

General Essentials

KISS & No Simpler“Keep it simple stupid (KISS).” How often do I need to hear this? I like the saying about KISS that’s often attributed to Albert Einstein but was actually Roger Session’s paraphrase: “Make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.” I am counting these as our first and second essentials.  Keep it simple is number one and no simpler is the second. I find this an immense challenge. When we are faced with schedule deadlines and tight budgets, it is costly to make a design simple. Some people have a gift at taking a problem and abstracting an elegant and simple solution. I remember giving a design specification to one of my employees a number of years ago when I worked for an aerospace company. After several days he came back with over 20 pages of algorithms and charts defining how the specification should be met in software. I wasn’t smart enough to know why it was too complex, but my gut feeling was: “This is too complex. Make it simpler.” Later, I turned it over to another young man who returned with an elegant two-page algorithm that worked perfectly.

How do we do that? “As simple as possible” can get us in trouble if we make it too simple. For example, just recently we were designing a multi-drop serial interface to be incorporated into a medical device. A strong case could be made for the simplicity of using a single-ended interface. But experience tells us that a differential interface will be more robust in the face of defibrillators and all the various noisy electronic instruments it will to play with. Which meets the KISS principle? The same tough decision comes when you’re trying to decide whether to go with a two-wire or a four-wire interface. Two wires has less cabling, but it’s more complex in the interface and forces single-duplex operation. Again, which meets the principle?

Sometimes the trade-off can come down to what you already have in the house. If you have well-debugged libraries for handling the two-wire 485 protocols, the reduced number of wires reduces the overall system complexity even though the software will in fact be more complex.

Sometimes when dealing with algorithm development, the KISS principle can also present ambiguous alternatives. At times, a straightforward linear programming approach can be many times more lines of code and more complex than an elegant algorithm. But the elegant algorithm may be obscure, difficult to maintain, or take too long to come up with. Therein lies the challenge to Keep It Simple Stupid but No Simpler.

Define the Problem/Create Clear SpecsHaving a clear set of specs is essential to every part of a design. We all know this and we always belly ache about how we don’t have perfect specifications. But get with it. You won’t always have perfect specs from your customer. But it is essential that you make them as good as possible. And in writing. If your customer is willing, keep pushing back and keep writing it down and refining it as you go.

I’ve found that essential for every phase of a project. Whether it is hardware or software, writing out the spec (on the schematic or in the code) is a wonderful act of discipline. Write out the spec for the module. Write out the spec for the algorithm. Write out the spec for the circuit. Writing it out forces you to think it through. End the belly-aching about the lack of good specs. Start creating them.

Don’t Skimp on the ToolsTools are our life blood. If you are a manager and your designers don’t have the best tools, you are wasting your money on their salaries. That said, we are not talking about buying tools you don’t use, tools that don’t pay for themselves, or tools that you can rent more cost effectively. Last week we were discussing a problem where one of our cell modem designs exceeded the limit for the second harmonic in spurious emissions. In talking over the problem with the test lab, I discovered that they had a tool that they brought inside the anechoic chamber that could tell the cell modem to transmit on such and such a frequency at maximum power. Naively, I asked, “Shouldn’t we have such a tool?” Someone responded: “Yes, but they cost almost a million dollars.” Oh. But we found we could rent one for $1,000 a day. So, I am not talking about being unwise with our money.

Many years ago while at the aerospace company, I was recommending an HP64000 system that appeared to be a very powerful tool for our software development team. I wrote up the proposal and presented it to the vice president of engineering. His question has haunted me ever since. “Would you buy it if it were your money?” I said then, and continue to say now, “Get the best tools that will allow you to do the job as quickly as possible. If a 200-man-hour job can be done for 100 hours with a $10,000 instrument, is it worth it. Absolutely.”

Read the DocumentationLast year we had a problem that showed up only after we started making the product in 1,000-piece runs. The problem was that some builds of the system took a very long time to power up. We had built about 10 prototypes, tested the design over thousands of power ups, and it tested just fine (thanks to POC-IT). Then the 1,000-piece run uncovered about a half-dozen units that had variable power-up times—ranging from a few seconds to more than an hour! Replacing the watchdog chip that controlled the RESET line to an ARM9 processor fixed the problem. But why did these half dozen fail? Many hours into the analysis we discovered that the RESET line out of the watchdog chip on the failed units would pulse but stay low for long periods of time. A shot of cold air instantly caused the chip to release the RESET. Was it a faulty chip lot? Nope. Upon a closer read of the documentation, we found that you cannot have a pull-up resister on the RESET line. For years we always had pull-ups on RESET lines. We’d missed that in the documentation.

Like it or not, we have to pour over the documentation of the chips and software library calls we use. We have to digest the content carefully. We cannot rely on what is intuitive.

Finally, and this is much more necessary than in years past, we have to pour over the errata sheets. And we need to do it before we commit the design. A number of years ago, a customer designed a major new product line around an Atmel ARM9. This ARM9 had the capability of directly addressing NOR memory up to 128 MB.  Except for the fact that the errata said that due to a bug it could only address 16 MB.  Ouch! Later we had problems with the I2C bus in the same chip. At times, the bus would lock up and nothing except a power cycle would unlock it. Enter the errata. Under some unmentioned conditions the I2C state machine can lock up. Ouch! In this case, we were able to use a bit-bang algorithm rather than the built-in I2C—but obviously at the cost of money, scheduling, and real time.

If You Can’t Explain it to Mom, It Ain’t ClearThat’s another way to say: “Assume no one reads the user manual.” I recently read a blog post about the City of Boston’s electronic parking meters ( Truly, one wonders who reviewed that user interface. If you want to make robust embedded systems with a user interface, they need to have intuitive interfaces, or you may be surprised at what the user comes up with. This takes time and effort, but it’s well worth it. Try it out on the uninitiated. Engineers are the worst kind of people for testing user interfaces. Try it on kids. My business partner’s one-year-old son found the first bug in our first product.

Be sure to get your hands on the upcoming anniversary issue to learn about the reset of the principles. He covers “Things Fail Essentials,” “Testing Essentials,” “Memory Management Essentials,” and more. Consider using it to create your own design principles checklist that you can keep at your workbench.

Embedded Security Tips (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Every few days we you a sneak peek at some of the exciting content that will run in Circuit Cellar‘s Anniversary issue, which is scheduled to be available in early 2013. You’ve read about Ed Nisley’s essay on his most memorable designs—from a hand-held scanner project to an Arduino-based NiMH cell tester—and Robert Lacoste’s tips for preventing embedded design errors. Now it’s time for another preview.

Many engineers know they are building electronic systems for use in dangerous times. They must plan for both hardware and software attacks, which makes embedded security a hot topic for 2013.  In an essay on embedded security risks, Virginia Tech professor Patrick Schaumont looks at the current state of affairs through several examples. His tips and suggestions will help you evaluate the security needs of your next embedded design.

Schaumont writes:

As design engineers, we should understand what can and what cannot be done. If we understand the risks, we can create designs that give the best possible protection at a given level of complexity. Think about the following four observations before you start designing an embedded security implementation.

First, you have to understand the threats that you are facing. If you don’t have a threat model, it makes no sense to design a protection—there’s no threat! A threat model for an embedded system will specify what can attacker can and cannot do. Can she probe components? Control the power supply? Control the inputs of the design? The more precisely you specify the threats, the more robust your defenses will be. Realize that perfect security does not exist, so it doesn’t make sense to try to achieve it. Instead, focus on the threats you are willing to deal with.

Second, make a distinction between what you trust and what you cannot trust. In terms of building protections, you only need to worry about what you don’t trust. The boundary between what you trust and what you don’t trust is suitably called the trust boundary. While trust boundaries where originally logical boundaries in software systems, they also have a physical meaning in embedded context. For example, let’s say that you define the trust boundary to be at the chip-package level of a microcontroller. This implies that you’re assuming an attacker will get as close to the chip as the package pins, but not closer. With such a trust boundary, your defenses should focus on off-chip communication. If there’s nothing or no one to trust, then you’re in trouble. It’s not possible to build a secure solution without trust.

Third, security has a cost. You cannot get it for free. Security has a cost in resources and energy. In a resource-limited embedded system, this means that security will always be in competition with other system features in terms of resources. And because security is typically designed to prevent bad things from happening rather than to enable good things, it may be a difficult trade-off. In feature-rich consumer devices, security may not be a feature for which a customer is willing to pay extra.

The fourth observation, and maybe the most important one, is to realize is that you’re not alone. There are many things to learn from conferences, books, and magazines. Don’t invent your own security. Adapt standards and proven Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.techniques. Learn about the experiences of other designers.

Schaumont then provides lists of helpful embedded security-related resources, such as Flylogic’s Analytics Blog and the Athena website at GMU.

Prevent Embedded Design Errors (CC 25th Anniversary Preview)

Attention, electrical engineers and programmers! Our upcoming 25th Anniversary Issue (available in early 2013) isn’t solely a look back at the history of this publication. Sure, we cover a bit of history. But the issue also features design tips, projects, interviews, and essays on topics ranging from user interface (UI) tips for designers to the future of small RAM devices, FPGAs, and 8-bit chips.

Circuit Cellar’s 25th Anniversary issue … coming in early 2013

Circuit Cellar columnist Robert Lacoste is one of the engineers whose essay will focus on present-day design tips. He explains that electrical engineering projects such as mixed-signal designs can be tedious, tricky, and exhausting. In his essay, Lacoste details 25 errors that once made will surely complicate (at best) or ruin (at worst) an embedded design project. Below are some examples and tips.

Thinking about bringing an electronics design to market? Lacoste highlights a common error many designers make.

Error 3: Not Anticipating Regulatory Constraints

Another common error is forgetting to plan for regulatory requirements from day one. Unless you’re working on a prototype that won’t ever leave your lab, there is a high probability that you will need to comply with some regulations. FCC and CE are the most common, but you’ll also find local regulations as well as product-class requirements for a broad range of products, from toys to safety devices to motor-based machines. (Refer to my article, “CE Marking in a Nutshell,” in Circuit Cellar 257 for more information.)

Let’s say you design a wireless gizmo with the U.S. market and later find that your customers want to use it in Europe. This means you lose years of work, as well as profits, because you overlooked your customers’ needs and the regulations in place in different locals.

When designing a wireless gizmo that will be used outside the U.S., having adequate information from the start will help you make good decisions. An example would be selecting a worldwide-enabled band like the ubiquitous 2.4 GHz. Similarly, don’t forget that EMC/ESD regulations require that nearly all inputs and outputs should be protected against surge transients. If you forget this, your beautiful, expensive prototype may not survive its first day at the test lab.

Watch out for errors

Here’s another common error that could derail a project. Lacoste writes:

Error 10: You Order Only One Set of Parts Before PCB Design

I love this one because I’ve done it plenty of times even though I knew the risk.

Let’s say you design your schematic, route your PCB, manufacture or order the PCB, and then order the parts to populate it. But soon thereafter you discover one of the following situations: You find that some of the required parts aren’t available. (Perhaps no distributor has them. Or maybe they’re available but you must make a minimum order of 10,000 parts and wait six months.) You learn the parts are tagged as obsolete by its manufacturer, which may not be known in advance especially if you are a small customer.

If you are serious about efficiency, you won’t have this problem because you’ll order the required parts for your prototypes in advance. But even then you might have the same issue when you need to order components for the first production batch. This one is tricky to solve, but only two solutions work. Either use only very common parts that are widely available from several sources or early on buy enough parts for a couple of years of production. Unfortunately, the latter is the only reasonable option for certain components like LCDs.

Ok, how about one more? You’ll have to check out the Anniversary Issue for the list of the other 22 errors and tips. Lacoste writes:

Error 12: You Forget About Crosstalk Between Digital and Analog Signals

Full analog designs are rare, so you have probably some noisy digital signals around your sensor input or other low-noise analog lines. Of course, you know that you must separate them as much as possible, but you can be sure that you will forget it more than once.

Let’s consider a real-world example. Some years ago, my company designed a high-tech Hi-Fi audio device. It included an on-board I2C bus linking a remote user interface. Do you know what happened? Of course, we got some audible glitches on the loudspeaker every time there was an I2C transfer. We redesigned the PCB—moving tracks and adding plenty of grounded copper pour and vias between sensitive lines and the problem was resolved. Of course we lost some weeks in between. We knew the risk, but underestimated it because nothing is as sensitive as a pair of ears. Check twice and always put guard-grounded planes between sensitive tracks and noisy ones.

Circuit Cellar’s Circuit Cellar 25th Anniversary Issue will be available in early 2013. Stay tuned for more updates on the issue’s content.