Two completely unrelated announcements this week point the way to a very bright embedded future. On Friday, IDC announced its new report titled “Intelligent Systems: The Next Big Opportunity.” This report says that the market for intelligent systems—which IDC calls “The Internet of Things” and defines as systems that contain high-performance microprocessors, have Internet or networking connectivity, and run high-level operating systems—currently encompasses 1.8 billion units and $1 trillion in revenue annually. That means unit shipments in this market already exceed the unit shipments of PCs, servers, and mobile phones. The report also predicts that this market will double to 4 billion units and $2 trillion in revenue by 2015.
“Wowsers,” as Inspector Gadget would say, those numbers are big enough to get anyone’s attention.
Coincidentally, Kontron announced on Thursday that it was making a strategic entry into the ARM architecture to address its customers’ needs for low power consumption and high performance per Watt. Who or what is Kontron? For one thing, it’s a global, broad-based vendor of embedded boards based on a wide variety of very popular microprocessor bus standards including CompactPCI, VME, VPX, Advanced MC, AdvancedTCA, PC/104, and PMC (just to name some of the company’s single-board computer board formats). In other words, Kontron’s products go into systems that comprise the Internet of Things.
As the Kontron press release states, the company has focused primarily on the X86 processor architecture to date, reflecting the size and weight of the X86 software ecosystem. However, the ARM software ecosystem has been growing and it appears to now be large enough for Kontron to bridge its product line to encompass the ARM processor architectures as well. Kontron’s press release specifically cites several operating systems for ARM processors including Windows CE 6 and 7, Linux-derived operating systems from QNX and Green Hills, and Wind River’s VxWorks. Kontron also states that its new board will be ready for Microsoft Windows 8 when its ARM-based variant appears.
Kontron’s emphasis on the importance of software support and its role in the company’s strategic decision reinforces the EDA360 position on software—it has become a much more important consideration in the design of all systems and in many cases, it’s the most important consideration.
The first ARM-based Kontron board-level products will be based on the COM (Computer on Module) format, which will accommodate one to four ARM cores in a “highly integrated” ARM SoC. Kontron states that the ARM-based SoC provides several popular interfaces such as multiple UARTs, I2C ports, USB ports, and PCIe ports. These interfaces are all integrated into one SoC to reduce chip count—compared to X86 chips, which are heavy on PCIe and USB ports. In other words, X86 chips tend to have the kind of interfaces used in PCs—because that’s the world they come from—instead of the “real-world” interface types listed above. So single-board X86 designs based on the more advanced X86 processor architectures generally require an additional peripheral chip to provide these types of interfaces. The extra peripheral chip adds cost, increases power consumption, and requires additional board space.
For System, SoC, and Silicon Realization teams, Kontron’s addition of the ARM architecture as a strategic expansion of its board-level product strategy signals a significant entry into the very large world of the Internet of Things. SoC vendors looking for volume markets would do well to look for opportunities here because the volumes can be huge. So says IDC. “IDC believes this new generation of intelligent systems and its ecosystem will have broad reach and establish the next wave in computing over the next five years,” said Mario Morales, Vice President of Semiconductor Research at IDC. Kontron’s announcement certainly reinforces Morales’ statement.