Support can be beautiful ... if you can get it

August 4, 2014 OpenSystems Media

You decide to take the plunge and adopt a new processor architecture. You’ve done your homework, and determined that this family will solve your needs. You’re well aware that it’s far different, both in terms of programming and board layout, as the family you’ve been working with for years. But never fear, tech support is only a phone call away – or is it?

Unfortunately, the amount of support you receive, if any, is likely determined by the number of devices you plan to purchase. Less than 1,000? Forget it. In that murky 10,000 range? Well, there are options available to you, but there’s a good chance you’re not going to like them.

Many of the semiconductor vendors have shifted to forums as a way to provide tech support. Some vendors do well with the forums, ensuring that they’re manned by competent engineers. Others don’t do so well, making forum staffing an extra duty to an already-overburdened engineering staff. In many cases, the forums are managed by an overseas staff, and the results vary greatly.

While engineering managers are loathe to admit it, the thinking is often that forum support is a waste of time for the product engineers. These folks are supposed to be designing the company’s next generation of products.

Sometimes support gets pushed out to the distributors. In theory, that’s a good idea, but the distys support lots of lines and have lots of customers themselves. And the word is that oftentimes those distributors can’t get their technical questions answered either, leaving the end customer/designer hanging.

When you go to the forum, if you have a fairly routine question, there’s a good chance that it’s already been asked and answered. Or, the engineer manning the forum that day can answer the question pretty quickly, without having to do much (or any) research to get the response. However, if you have a question that’s somewhat esoteric, you can probably forget about getting a response.

In the cases where product families have been obsoleted, it’s not unusual for the vendor to obsolete the support as well, even though there may be years of design work still taking place. Again, that often comes down to the size (and spend) of the customer.

In a previous column, where I discussed the top achievements in embedded, I talked about the popularity of development boards, like BeagleBoard, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, and so on. Support has a lot to do with their success. In each case, there’s an active forum group that will answer your questions.

A second phenomenon that’s easing the support issue is that many of the major semiconductor vendors have standardized around the ARM architecture. While each vendors’ offerings differs in some way, there’s still enough similarities that engineers can get through the design process.

So if you’re thinking of switching to a new architecture, one where your own personal knowledge base is limited, you may want to think again.

Rich Nass, Embedded Computing Brand Director
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