Opportunities and challenges of system convergence in industrial systems

Manufacturers of industrial automation systems are finding themselves in an increasingly competitive market. This competition is rooted in the reduction of global competitive barriers combined with increasing access to technology. The pressure is on manufacturers to create more compelling and reliable products, deliver them to market faster, and at the same time allow their customers to reduce their related capital and operational expenses.

A common strategy to address this competitive market is through what is commonly termed “convergence,” or the consolidation of several systems into a single system. Embedded system software and hardware providers have played a key role in enabling this convergence. Such advancements have allowed industrial manufacturers to combine applications running on discrete CPUs onto a single, multicore SoC processor.

Through consolidation on a multicore system, manufacturers combine applications running on one type of operating system alongside new, feature-rich, and differentiated functionality running on a separate operating system. Convergence examples might include consolidating the human-machine interface (HMI) with an automation controller, combining legacy devices with Ethernet-ready systems, or integrating a security gateway function into a system with an HMI. This type of consolidation has been gaining momentum in recent years, particularly in the case of symmetric cores; that is, a multicore SoC with cores of the same type, such as Freescale’s quad-core i.MX6 processor.

But the multicore trend continues to evolve. Not only are SoCs including more symmetric cores and integrated devices, but they now include asymmetric cores. These asymmetric cores might be low-power MCUs, GPUs, DSPs, or FPGAs. With the extension of the multicore SoC to include heterogeneous cores there’s even more opportunity to consolidate, but at the same time the development headaches become even more complex. For example, how does one partition the functionality across symmetric and asymmetric cores? How do you boot the system? How do you load and unload applications and operating environments on remote (or slave) cores from a master core? How do you enable inter-processor communication (IPC)? The complexity behind these problems gives pause to designers as they ponder how to architect, build, debug, and support their systems.

One concern with system convergence, which actually applies to the entire Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) movement, is security issues associated with having multiple functions existing on a single device that is highly connected. Because these consolidated systems can share memory, caches, I/O, and other hardware capabilities, a security breach into one partition can more easily permeate the entire system. Clearly, the challenge to manufacturers of consolidated and connected devices is to carefully design in security, taking into account all the potential modes of attack.

The embedded device market is as exciting as it has ever been, and becoming even more exciting by the day. Today’s embedded system technologies clearly provide manufacturers of industrial devices new opportunities for creating differentiated products and business models. Along with these opportunities come significant challenges to develop complex systems on complex multicore SoCs, while factoring security considerations into the design. The Mentor Graphics embedded systems portfolio is designed to address these challenges and more.

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