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Moore's Law and Embedded Control

Sept. 11, 2011
We Want to Do for Embedded What the PC Did for the Desktop. The Ecosystem Is Open. You Can Plug Any Component In and It Works

By Aaron Hand, Managing Editor

As I approached my one-year anniversary with Control Design, I took my first foray into the National Instruments love-fest that is NIWeek. Honestly, the more than 3,300 engineers, scientists and educators in attendance just couldn't say enough, it would seem, about how graphical system design makes product development and industrial measurement quicker and easier. Given how popular NI seemed during a very hot week in Austin, it was difficult for me to understand why graphics-based design tools are not more prevalent in industrial automation.

NI, of course, hopes to change that. The company, celebrating the 25th anniversary of LabView this year, was built within the lab test environment, with an inspiration for automating measurements. In his keynote speech at NIWeek, James Truchard, NI's president, CEO and cofounder, spoke of the company's vision over the next 25 years, and its eye on expanding LabView's role into system-level design and industrial embedded control systems. "We want to do for embedded what the PC did for the desktop," he said. "The ecosystem is open in a way that you can plug any of thousands of components in and they work."

NI's vision is toward a convergence of design and test in a standardized platform that can be used over and over again to build embedded systems. "The real key is software that works over the timeline, where you can reuse it and upgrade the hardware without having to update the programs," Truchard said, pointing to "critical long-term compatibility."

That timeline Truchard speaks of is based on the seemingly endless march of Moore's Law. I never fail to get a kick out of the cyclical nature of technology—how, for example, it wouldn't be feasible for chip designers to create the complex circuitry common today without the processing power of the latest complex microchips. It's Moore's Law itself driving the proliferation of Moore's Law.

"Moore's Law has been very, very favorable," Truchard said, pointing to the capabilities enabled by today's processors in design environments. Moore's Law also should drive smaller form factors in measurement modules. "We should expect smaller instrumentation as well, because transistors have shrunk 2,000 times," he added.

[pullquote]It was a common theme throughout the week that the trend is toward software-driven products. Look at the likes of Google, or Apple's iProducts, in which the technology proliferation is through the software platforms. In the cell phone market, the complexity of smart phones is driven by software development. "What would it be like if they designed cell phones like traditional instrument designers designed their instruments?" queried Ray Almgren, NI's vice president of product marketing. "You'd probably have to drag it around on a dolly, and plug it into the wall."

NI and its partners also spoke repeatedly of the benefits from chip advances, particularly with regard to multicore processing. NI announced its first multicore CompactRIO system, featuring an Intel Core i7 dual-core processor, which adds a lot of horsepower—a greater than 11x improvement in loop rate, according to NI systems engineer Ben Black.

NI makes it a practice to take advantage of the advances taking place in off-the-shelf chips from Intel and Texas Instruments, for example, so that it can essentially double up on its own innovations. NI will spend more than $200 million this year on R&D, and leveraging the innovation of its partners takes that money that much further.

One of those partners is Xilinx, and its FPGAs for the RIO products. Xilinx, in turn, is working closely with ARM and its processors. "If you think you can go it alone, you're wrong," said Ivo Bolsens, CTO and senior vice president at Xilinx, during a panel discussion. "A lot of successful companies build a platform in order to build an ecosystem." Xilinx picked ARM's processor because of its ecosystem. "That will become more and more important in future."

That loops us back around to what seems to be the key attraction for those engineers who have drunk the NI Kool-Aid: The tools rely on abstraction to tackle today's increasingly complex systems. "We sometimes get lost in that complexity, and may even lose touch with the core of what our profession is all about," said Eric Starkloff, vice president of product marketing at NI. "Tools should not limit innovation and scientific discovery. They should give you right level of abstraction, and let you drill down when you need to."

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