As we have explored in my previous columns, suppliers of silicon technologies to real-time embedded markets have adopted a new paradigm to address the increased time-to-market pressures on OEMs in the Internet era. Furthermore, we have broken that paradigm into four separate but equal elements: silicon, software, systems, and support.
In analyzing the ideal silicon element, we found that manufacturers should look for vendors that offer a broad range of code-compatible products that span the continuum of performance, power, integration, and price, as well as complementary system-level devices. Because programmability is paramount to success across these vectors, ideal DSP vendors will also have an integrated software offering that includes host-side and target-side products as well as access to a vast network of third-party vendors.
But it's not enough simply to have these components of a system. Today's silicon suppliers must also intimately understand how the parts can be put together to form a viable whole. In other words, they must possess the third element of our new paradigm: systems expertise.
This is not to suggest that suppliers are the system experts. That title rightfully belongs to the electronics OEMs. What new-paradigm suppliers provide is an in-depth knowledge of the hurdles engineers must clear to get a given product to a given market, and the portfolio of components to help them clear those hurdles. Based on their experience implementing silicon platforms for literally thousands of varied applications, strong suppliers can provide the building blocks for customers to design their own differentiated products.
To better explore this idea, let's take a look at the process by which a system designer brings a product to market. While the specifics may vary, the basic approach is the same across applications and industries, and a good silicon vendor will know it backward and forward.
The first step is to define the system being designed and to determine its requirements. What will my system look like? Strong vendors should be able to assist OEMs in this stage by demonstrating successful implementations in similar end equipments. For example, the top DSP vendors have had vast experience in digitizing traditionally analog markets such as audio and imaging.
Manufacturers can draw from this well of knowledge and receive first-hand information on what works and what doesn't. What are my system budgets for power, cost, and area? What is the performance density and quality expectation? Should I develop my own software or rely on an outside source?
The answers to these questions will vary from application to application. OEMs should be able to rely on suppliers to provide personal access to in-house experts and easy-to-use searchable Web sites. The sites should offer selection guides, white papers, and technical documentation on myriad applications that are the hallmark of the Internet era.
The second step is to select the technology that will best meet a designer's defined requirements. What implementation strategy best suits my products needs? No one technology can be all things to all people, and designers have to look at what's available. Strong silicon suppliers will facilitate this stage of the process by offering a broad portfolio of products that a customer can purchase immediately. Suppliers will also be open to creating new options specific to a customer or a market's needs.
When we discuss technology selection, it's not enough to simply talk about DSPs or other signal processing technologies; we have to talk about system architecture. OEMS need access to the best peripherals and complementary components. They have to know that their vendor understands system partitioning across hardware and software, benchmarking and acceleration, single-core versus multi-core or single-thread versus multi-thread.
Does the supplier have infrastructure peripherals, seamless connection to circuit switching framers, and matching high performance analog components? Do they offer low-power USB, compact connectivity, and real-time clock support for today's portable market? All of these are vital to quickly and efficiently get a manufacturer to market with the products consumers are demanding.
The third step of the process is design and integration. How do I put it all together? Manufacturers should be able to rely on their vendors to provide the software and hardware tools, including developer's kits, and evaluation modules, that help to prove a designers concept will work in the real world. Here, the ability to choose from a variety of real-time operating systems built on lightweight kernels enables the integration of multiple software components in a single application.
Software is crucial because customers don't want to waste design time on foundational code, they want their effort to be focused on the areas that will differentiate their end product. They also want chip-support libraries for easy control of peripherals by the system software. And, for the development of differentiating software, they need high-performance C compilers and assembly tools in an IDE to slash time-to-market and resource costs.
Also critical to this stage of the process is technical support, an area I will delve into more deeply in my next article. Suffice it to say that OEMs should have access to the third-party software and hardware that will help them implement their systems, technical representatives for local market support, an accessible 24-hour hot line for individual designer support, and an online, easy-to-use knowledge base that embodies the cumulative knowledge of an entire organization. Together these mechanisms help designers avoid the pitfalls that can delay projects by months and years.
The fourth and fifth steps are prototype build and production. Can I make my design work in a real-world setting, and then can I ramp up to the quantities I need to win my market? In the prototype stage, a strong vendor can be indispensable by making its distribution networks available, offering free samples and selling silicon in small quantities. Critical too is the availability of high-performance system debug tools, such as real-time code analysis and real-time transfer of data streams between host and target systems. Support is crucial here, as well, when working through system bugs.
As soon as production begins, a manufacturer must be sure its vendor can meet the demands of the market. This means two things: Can they deliver in quantity and can they deliver on time? All other design requirements are moot if a supplier can't deliver on promised technology.
Once in the market, the goal is to stay there, and strong suppliers are facilitators in this aspect as well. By offering code-compatible silicon and easy upgrades through software downloads, suppliers can keep their customers ahead of the ever-changing standards and customer demands that are the hallmark of the Internet era.
Greg Delagi is vice president and manager of worldwide digital signal processing at Texas Instruments Inc., Dallas. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org