Intelligent networking technologies advance the Internet of Things - Q&A with Tom Barber, Director of Marketing, Silicon Labs

Tom Barber of Silicon Labs discusses the Internet of Things (IoT) and the wireless embedded technologies poised to deliver a truly connected world.

6With the Internet of Things creating new opportunities for embedded technology companies, designers are facing pressure to deliver connected devices optimized for wireless networking applications. Tom highlights the technologies and tools available today for helping designers employ the variety of elements comprising an embedded wireless system and explains how Silicon Labs' recent acquisition of Ember Corporation will help meet the demand for low-power, small-footprint wireless technology.

IES: As a major component supplier of systems, have you identified any new or changing trends in the marketplace?

BARBER: Embedded systems have experienced significant growth throughout the past decade in markets such as telecommunications, industrial, automotive, security, and consumer electronics as more and more intelligence is added to devices and systems. However, the embedded market growth of the past few years could well be dwarfed by what is yet to come. Machine-to-Machine () communications is surging, and industry leaders such as ARM predict the number of connected devices will exceed 15 billion nodes by 2015 and reach 50 billion by 2020. is opening up new markets, and the ability of everyday devices to communicate with each other in our living and work environments enables new applications, increasing the capabilities and efficiencies of the devices and the comfort, convenience, and security of consumers.

Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe has often pointed out that a small fraction of the more than 10-15 billion microcontrollers shipped today are networked. Today we are seeing an increasing trend to uncover the tremendous value of interconnecting these devices in many segments such as , home security, , building automation, industrial automation, and health care, to name a few.

The rapid growth of offers embedded technology companies a tremendous opportunity to help shape the future by driving standards and developing a broad range of communications products including , microcontrollers, and software optimized for applications, as well as providing the development tools that make it easy to build intelligent, networked products.

IES: What new microcontroller technologies are available to meet the growing demand to reduce cost, power, and complexity in embedded applications?

BARBER: In recent years, a new category of microcontroller (MCU) product – the wireless MCU – has emerged to address the requirements of embedded applications with RF connectivity (see Figure 1). Wireless MCUs feature a hybrid architecture that integrates an MCU core, such as an ARM processor or an 8051 core, and a wireless transceiver into a single device. Numerous embedded applications such as , home automation, security systems, personal medical devices, and for building and industrial automation all require MCUs to process data, as well as wireless transceivers to transmit and receive data, sometimes over considerable distances. Combining the processing and RF functions into single-chip implementations provides developers with a range of benefits including reductions in bill of materials cost, component count, board space, power consumption, and design complexity.

Figure 1: Wireless microcontrollers provide highly integrated control and RF connectivity solutions for applications.
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A key design consideration for battery-operated wireless systems is reducing power consumption and extending the system’s operational life. Wireless communications systems, however, require power to execute communications protocols and transmit data over long distances. An ultra-low-power wireless MCU can integrate power-saving features such as highly efficient, intelligent, switched mode power supplies to reduce overall current consumption without compromising RF performance, as well as an exceptionally power-efficient transceiver capable of achieving sleep/standby currents as low as 50 nA.

An advanced wireless MCU design can also reduce power consumption by integrating hardware blocks to accelerate complex computation functions such as AES or CRC, along with a DMA peripheral to perform a complete radio transaction without CPU intervention. A hardware data packet processing engine can accelerate packet processing by up to 5x while consuming half as much current as CPU-intensive operations performed in software.

Wireless MCUs ultimately enable developers to reduce the complexity of embedded designs by eliminating the need for discrete RF ICs. Ultra-low-power wireless MCUs also allow developers to either reduce the size/cost of batteries in their embedded systems or increase battery life while delivering end products with exceptional RF performance.

IES: What components does Silicon Labs provide to support embedded wireless technologies?

BARBER: To help engineers bring their Internet of Things devices to market faster, semiconductor suppliers like Silicon Labs must offer complete system products, including semiconductors, communications software, and tools that make it easy for developers to implement the various elements of an embedded wireless system and focus on what they know best – the end application.

Adding wireless connectivity to embedded applications can be a complex, costly, and time-consuming process, especially for products that originally did not include wireless or networking – for example, lighting products. Silicon Labs offers several tools that simplify the process of adding high-performance RF connectivity to embedded wireless applications. Our development tools provide a macroscopic view of an entire network from a single console and enable back-channel troubleshooting across the network. In addition, our GUI-based Ember AppBuilder tool (Figure 2) provides a rapid path to developing certifiable, standards-based products based on the EM35x series of ZigBee solutions. Tools like this help developers with limited experience in network-level interoperability of ZigBee devices to spend less time worrying about those aspects and instead focus their energies on developing the best applications possible.

Figure 2: The Ember AppBuilder tool provides a fast path to creating ZigBee certified applications.
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Silicon Labs also offers tools that make it easy to add sub-GHz connectivity to cost-sensitive embedded applications. For example, our GUI-based EZConfig configuration tool for the EZRadio family eliminates the complex manual configuration process needed for most sub-GHz RF designs, saving time and effort normally required to calculate and verify a lengthy list of radio parameters. Developers select from predefined configurations, or they can easily set up their own customized configuration.

IES: How does the acquisition of Ember Corporation and their networking technologies affect your market strategy?

BARBER: The acquisition of Ember Corporation brings Silicon Labs the technology and software expertise required to enable the low-power being developed today for a wide range of Internet of Things applications in residential, commercial, and industrial environments. The demand for low-power, small-footprint wireless technology is accelerating as more and more wireless end points are being connected to the Internet of Things.

Prior to the acquisition, Ember was a pioneer in the market for technology (see Figure 3), including 802.15.4-based ZigBee technology, a crucial piece of low-power wireless technology needed for the vast number of “last-inch” nodes in Internet of Things networks. Ember has been developing mesh networking technology since the concept was first conceived. The acquisition of Ember brings Silicon Labs more than a decade of systems and software knowledge applied to the connected home, smart metering, and building automation, among other applications.

Figure 3: Mesh networking enables excellent reliability and scalability in wireless networks.
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This addition fits well with Silicon Labs’ Internet of Things vision and the growth of its broad-based businesses including wireless ICs, microcontrollers, timing devices, sensors, and digital isolation products. Ember’s mesh networking and 2.4 GHz expertise blends with Silicon Labs’ leadership in sub-GHz and point-to-point wireless technologies. As a result, we can now provide more comprehensive, end-to-end solutions for the Internet of Things. In addition, Silicon Labs and Ember offer complementary development environments for their embedded products, accelerating the combined roadmap and supporting rapid adoption among the existing customer base.

IES: Does Silicon Labs offer any hardware or software educational events or online classes to help embedded designers get started with your products?

BARBER: Silicon Labs is committed to helping customers get to market faster, and education programs are an important element of the total solution. To that end, Silicon Labs provides an array of options including online videos, applications notes, and white papers; webinars and online classes; and hands-on training programs for embedded designers. We also collaborate with global distribution partners to provide educational content to customers. In addition, Silicon Labs’ products include comprehensive documentation, user guides, and access to an extensive online knowledgebase designed to help developers come up to speed quickly.

Tom Barber is director of marketing at Silicon Labs.

Silicon Labs

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