The Internet of Things (IoT) marks a special moment in the technology era, and the question is where do commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solutions stand in this paradigm shift? In other words, how should developers address the COTS vs. in-house design call in the hyper-connected IoT world?
The COTS designs are gradually moving into select IoT markets, like industrial and transportation, with smaller footprints and new customization models. They are being increasingly employed in rugged environments, such as oil fields and grid stations for remote monitoring and predicted and preventative maintenance.
In transportation systems, for instance, the COTS-based designs are being used for remote access, fleet availability, system health management, and infotainment systems. A new breed of COTS solutions—based on open architectures—is fully validated, certified, and compatible with target applications such as video surveillance, passenger service information, and train-to-ground communications in the connected train information systems (Figure 1).
However, while IoT developers focus on software and features that differentiate their designs, and COTS takes care of hardware- and OS-related issues, it’s imperative they find out the level of customization to balance the design trade-offs.
In fact, despite the cost and time-to-market benefits, COTS solutions for the IoT markets, such as industrial and transportation, are a work in progress. The small form factor as well as size, weight, and power (SWaP)-optimized standard COTS modules come with significant deployment challenges for small-volume IoT applications.
This article will find out how well COTS-based embedded designs are positioned to serve the mission-critical IoT applications in industrial and transportation segments, and delve into the key trends driving the evolution of COTS design in the IoT age.
From VME to VPX
To start, the venerable VME architecture for embedded boards is giving way to a modern and robust VPX standard amid VME’s limitations relating to lack of bandwidth and I/O flexibility. The VPX architecture consolidates a variety of interfaces to boost interoperability, and that’s hitting the sweet spot in COTS designs with the availability of greater bandwidth and I/O pins.
The VPX architecture for embedded boards—initially driven by telecommunication and networking applications— allows COTS solutions to expand features in a single-board architecture, and thus enables more processing performance in smaller design footprints.
The VPX boards boost I/O bandwidth and provide support for serial switching fabrics like PCI Express. They also retain many popular features of the legacy VME ecosystem, and thus protect the existing hardware and software investments. But VPX boards supporting bandwidth-intensive applications still face many deployment challenges.
For starters, VPX could add a lot of customizations work.
At the same time, however, VPX allows technicians to easily remove and replace processing and I/O boards, which leads to easy field maintenance. More importantly, VPX supports vastly increasing chip densities and integration drive, cramming more components into smaller spaces.
Which brings us to the next major trend in the COTS design space: heterogeneous computing platforms encompassing CPU, GPUs, MCUs, FPGAs, etc.
Heterogeneous Processing Platforms
Heterogonous computing is at the forefront of the next- generation COTS designs that have traditionally been associated with smaller embedded architectures. Now, COTS boards are moving away from MCUs, and moving toward more powerful CPUs and GPUs amid the proliferation of cameras, sensors, and other data-gathering devices.
A new crop of processing platforms featuring CPUs, GPU, hardware accelerators, etc. is taking the performance of COTS designs to a whole new level, while shrinking form factors and lowering power consumption. Take, for example, railway infotainment, where COTS designs with built-in hardware codecs are accelerating the adoption of H.254, H.265, and HEVC video applications.
The high-performance COTS boards are now increasingly being used for challenging data acquisition, signal processing, and data storage applications. The COTS mezzanine board from Annapolis Micro Systems is a case in point; it’s based on the Zynq RF system-on-chip (SoC) from Xilinx that combines FPGA processing and data converters on a single chip (Figure 3).
Here, a COTS solution can help address the RF complexity of designs featuring multiple channels while it simplifies integration with high-speed serial interfaces. For instance, the above- mentioned COTS solution from Annapolis enables direct RF sampling in the digital domain, bypassing the need for large and more expensive RF signal up/down conversion and signal conditioning.
The boost in compute power is accompanied with validated software items, such as Khronos-compliant graphics libraries and safety-certified real-time operating system (RTOS) environments. The software suites complementing the COTS boards include firmware, graphics drivers, reuse code modules, and operation and maintenance software tools.
Moreover, the multi-core processors, like Intel’s Atom, are also incorporating security features, a key requirement for ensuring safety and reliability of massively connected industrial andtransportation designs. The next section is dedicated to how heterogeneous processing platforms are incorporating security features to facilitate IoT-enabled COTS designs.
Security has mostly been a second-class citizen in the IoT world, but COTS has some viable solutions to offer here. And it’s intrinsically tied to the availability of heterogeneous processors that come with built-in hardware- and software- based security features. That includes JTAG lock, isolated SRAM regions, and OTP flash with read control.
The new processing platforms from Intel and Arm are also capable of detecting malware and unauthorized behaviors through built-in authentication and validation processes. There are also features like Intel’s QuickAssist Technology (QAT) that deliver custom hardware security. It’s basically a hardware accelerator for running cryptographic and compression algorithms.
Intel’s Atom E3900 and A3900 processors are also optimized to leverage the safety features of RTOS platforms like Green Hills Software’s INTEGRITY. These COTS-centric processors are employed in HMI-based display designs for safety-critical graphics and video applications.
In short, COTS boards equipped with powerful processors can take away a major design headache—security—by abstracting and simplifying the security implementation work. Here, a COTS board can efficiently manage different hardware and software security layers by utilizing the processor, memory, I/O, and peripheral options in powerful heterogeneous processing platforms explained in the above section.
The COTS-based designs have come a long way since Bob Costello first coined the term “COTS” in 1972 to explain a new shift in military equipment procurement and design practices.
And IoT marks the latest crossroads in this relentless technology journey. The certifiable hardware and software solutions constituting the COTS-based embedded designs offer major advantages for the rapidly emerging IoT applications.
But COTS solutions are also rapidly evolving to serve the critical needs of low-volume IoT applications. So beware while making a build-or-buy decision. For example, make sure that your COTS solution hasn’t created more complexity than it has simplified the design. Also, make sure that you understand all the engineering costs related to these IoT-enabled COTS designs.