Getting Your “Things” Online

Networked embedded devices! Lately it seems like living in a hermetically-sealed, anechoic fallout shelter (that’s under a rock for good measure) might be the only way to avoid their all-out takeover of the tech press. The term “Internet of Things” (or IoT) might be equal parts buzzword / revolution / headline fad, but there’s no denying that adding network smarts to embedded systems is a real trend that’s offering real value. Beyond just extending functions and allowing remote control, putting devices online can:

  • Provide remote diagnostics and problem notifications
  • Extend devices’ storage capacities
  • Remotely back up measurements, configurations or calibrations
  • Offload processing tasks
  • Supply time/date information and device synchronization
  • Enable analysis of long-term trends
  • Allow aggregation of data from multiple embedded devices
  • Enable adaptive control using server-side data sources
  • Provide “over the air” firmware updates

As we reported in May, IEEE saw this trend in their 2014 “Embedded Design Trends” survey – and we’ve been seeing it too as customer requests for networked devices are at an all-time high. As a result, we’ve been exploring and accumulating expertise with lots of Network and WiFi-enabled devices, modules and controllers over the last few years!

Embedded WiFi

Embedded WiFi Module

With all the buzz surrounding that “Internet of Things” phenomenon, silicon and module vendors have kicked their WiFi offerings into high gear. There are more ways to get an embedded system onto a WiFi network than ever before, and the solutions are getting smaller, faster, more sensitive and more power-efficient.

We’re definitely excited to see Texas Instruments’ newest WiFi offering – the SimpleLink “WiFi on a Chip”. It’s the first solution we’ve seen that wraps up a full WiFi client and access point, a complete network stack (including secure protocols like SSL/TLS with hardware crypto) and a speedy Cortex M4 microcontroller in a single part. While production parts aren’t available yet, we have the CC3200 development system in-hand to get ahead of the curve when TI ships them later this year!

Of course, there’s a whole spectrum of embedded WiFi options – from the benchmark “Electric Imp” and the ambitious, to industrial-grade modules from Digi, Lantronix, Bluegiga, Microchip, Murata and othres – many of which we’ve worked with hands-on and integrated into products.

Embedded Ethernet

Ethernet CablesAhh, old faithful. Ethernet has been quietly and reliably delivering cute cat videos important spreadsheets to our desktop PCs for decades, not to mention carrying plenty of industrial automation traffic. Over the last decade, though, it’s been steadily invading smaller spaces as an ever-increasing array of microcontrollers offer on-chip MACs, PHYs and even TCP/IP stacks. Absent WiFi’s higher RF testing and certification costs, Ethernet can be a good, reliable option for stationary embedded systems – and with no SSIDs or network passwords to enter (which presents a challenge on a device with no user interface!) it’s simpler for end-users.

From medical devices to flight simulators, engine controllers to optics systems, AppliedLogix has Ethernet-enabled a variety of embedded devices, designed application-level protocols for peer-to-peer interaction, and integrated with existing server-side APIs. We’ve worked with Ethernet-enabled microcontrollers from Texas Instruments, ST Microelectronics and more.

Is Now the Time?

Giving embedded devices a network presence certainly isn’t a new concept – lots of “non-PC” hardware has been networked for a long time! But the types of devices that can be networked, the ways they can communicate, and the breadth of protocols and services they can leverage are growing at an unprecedented pace. Entire infrastructure platforms are springing up, dedicated entirely to providing a ready-made back-end for embedded devices to talk to. And, thanks to the IoT trend, the BOM cost of adding WiFi or Ethernet connectivity to embedded devices is lower than ever.

If you have a new or existing device that could benefit from network or Internet connectivity, please contact us – The AppliedLogix team would love to discuss it and help you get it online, and we’ve got the experience to do it right.

About the Author:

David Rea is an AppliedLogix senior engineer and partner. He serves as the firm's engineering practice leader for Fuel Cell and Energy applications. He holds degrees in Electrical Engineering (BS) and Software Engineering (MS) from the Rochester Institute of Technology.

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