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Modular Embedded

Design to Accelerate
IoT Proliferation

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Modular kitchens are widely popular in households nowadays. It


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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, lets 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
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Few fields that are showing promising IoT applications are Smart Homes, Smart Cities,
Security & Assistance, Connected Vehicles, Industrial Automation, Healthcare,
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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. 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.
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Now, lets take a look at the embedded development of sensors and gateways. Usually,
sensors are simple, application-specific & standardized, micro-controller based
devices. The
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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.
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.

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Constraints

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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.
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 Moores 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 timeconsuming and expensive.
Product Risk: There is a substantial risk associated with the supply chain of the endproduct in case any silicon components (SoC, RAM, Flash memory) reach End of Life.

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Single Board Computer (SBC)


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SBCs offer a ready-to-use embedded platform on a single PCB for developing any endproduct. The OEMs select single board computers that are best suited for their
requirements and then develop the end-application. Although, SBCs are applicationready, 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.

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Currently, low-cost SBCs such as Raspberry Pi and BeagleBone are really popular in the
embedded market. These open-source and community-backed platforms canCHAIRMAN
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.

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Introducing modularity in embedded design


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An embedded platform can be represented as below:


Application specific part
Hardware Peripherals,
Display, I/O
Software Application, UI
Application agnostic part
Hardware SoC, Flash
memory, RAM
Software Operating System, Device Drivers, Board
Support Packages

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The Application Agnostic part consists of essential design commodities, including the
processing & memory requirements. This part may not differ much whether theCHAIRMAN
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-theshelf COM, and thus accelerate time-to-market without compromising on product
development cost and risk

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Figure 1: Details of Computer on


Module
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The revamped architecture after using COM is shown below.


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Application specific part


Hardware Carrier
Board, Peripherals, Display
Software Application, UI
Application agnostic part
Computer on Module

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.
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Figure 2: An illustration of Viola - A small form-factor (74


mm x 74mm), ultra-low cost Carrier Board from Toradex

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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
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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.

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Toradex is a registered trademark of Montadex GmbH

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The Build vs Buy Dilemma


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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 applicationspecific 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.

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Figure 3: Pin-compatible COMs from Toradex

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Toradex is a Switzerland based company that designs and develops ARM based COMs
powered by Freescale i.MX 6 & Vybrid, NVIDIA Tegra, and MarvellCHAIRMAN
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.

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COM/ SOM for IoT products


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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.

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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
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market. 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.

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Thank
you!

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