Windows tackles embedded complexity

May 1, 2011 OpenSystems Media

3As embedded devices grow in complexity and incorporate more and more features already available in the PC world, it may be time to take another look at the Windows Embedded software suite.

Embedded devices are beginning to look a lot like desktop computers, as customers demand graphical interfaces, high-speed communications, multimedia, and full integration with Internet-delivered data and services. With these features already built into the Windows operating system, it is only natural for developers to consider variations of the Windows operating system for new embedded products. Microsoft’s latest Windows Embedded portfolio of platforms and technologies offers the developer plenty of features and functionality to support the next generation of highly complex embedded devices.

Software complexity is just one of several reasons to consider a Windows variation for embedded applications. Other advantages of a Windows-based operating system are the availability of a large number of skilled programmers, familiar development tools, and extensive third-party hardware and software support. Newer embedded devices also require local data security for remote applications and network security software to safely connect with remote databases and services. Windows Embedded Standard 7 includes several new security features, including BitLocker and DirectAccess to deal with these cases. For local security, BitLocker encrypts data stored on protected volumes, so if a hard drive is removed from the system, the data is unreadable. For communications security, DirectAccess automatically creates a secure connection between client systems and the company server without the need to initiate a Virtual Private Network (VPN) session. Microsoft also spends considerable time and resources testing and fixing security flaws for both desktop and embedded products.

Thousands of image components

Code size is often listed as a disadvantage for Windows-based designs. However, Windows Embedded Standard 7 is broken down into thousands of components. It’s possible to pick from predesigned templates or create a completely unique software configuration, depending on your application. You can use Microsoft tools such as Image Builder Wizard to select from a few options or Image Configuration Editor to add, remove, or configure any functionality in Standard 7 automatically. You can create a specialized embedded operating system image that is as small as 600 MB. (The standard Windows image is about 16 GB.) After the image is running, you can make additional changes manually. Such changes could include installing and configuring software and drivers or customizing the Windows Welcome Screen.

Another frequently cited reason against developing a Windows-based embedded product is the poor response to real-time inputs. Windows Embedded Standard 7 has no inherent real-time capabilities. Thread switch times can be excessive, depending on software activity. For these applications, Microsoft recommends Windows Embedded Compact 7, an updated version of Windows Embedded CE, or third-party, real-time plug-ins that can be used to support a wide range of real-time, small-footprint enterprise and consumer devices. TenAsys is one of several vendors who offer real-time virtualization software compatible with the Windows Embedded Standard 7 platform. The TenAsys INtime RTOS allows you to combine the high-level features of Windows with a real-time, deterministic operating system.

Embedded off-the-shelf modules

One of the fastest methods to develop a new embedded device is to combine a pre-engineered, off-the-shelf module with a compatible and tested operating system. For example, Advantech supports Windows Embedded Standard 7 for a number of embedded boards, including the SOM-5890 COM Express module (Figure 1), which also fits digital signage applications.

The Advantech 4.92-inch x 3.74-inch SOM-5890 COM Express module is compliant with the newly released PICMG COM.0 R2.0 Type 6 specification and offers HDMI, DVI, and DisplayPort video interfaces as well as SVDO, LVDS, and VGA output. The COM Express module is based on the Intel Core i7 processor and Intel QM67 Express chipset and supports graphic intensive, multi-display applications. The SOM-5890 supports up to 16 GB of dual-channel DDR3 memory and extensive interface expansion for up to three DDIs, multiple PCI Express lanes, USB 2.0 ports, and a Gigabit Ethernet interface along with serial and general-purpose I/O ports. The SOM-5890 board includes specialized support for Windows Embedded Standard 7, and the module ships with Advantech’s iManager software and related APIs. (*See below for acronyms.)

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Figure 1: The Advantech SOM-5890 COM Express module targets embedded applications and is compatible with the Windows Embedded Standard 7 operating system.

Digital signs capture video analytics

One application that vividly demonstrates the ability of Windows Embedded Standard 7 to handle complex requirements is the Next-Generation Digital Signage project cosponsored by Microsoft, Intel, and NEC. Digital signage has become ubiquitous in the retail, transportation, education, health care, and lodging markets, delivering high-speed information and advertising content to a wide range of consumers. The Next-Generation Digital Signage project presents advertisers with new opportunities through the use of anonymous video analytics. As consumers pass by and look at the system screen, a built-in camera captures images. System software stores data such as gender, age, length of visit, and time of day to allow advertisers to tailor their content and graphics based on expected demographics. The system can also present daily specials, downloadable coupons, store maps, and other information in real time to respond to customer gestures, motion, or touch-screen inquiries (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: The 7.5-foot-tall Intelligent Digital Signage Concept from Intel and Microsoft previews next-generation multi-touch, multi-user advertising techniques.

In addition to Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Standard 7 operating system, the Next-Generation Digital Signage project relies on a group of technologies now available with the 2nd generation Intel Core architecture. This new architecture includes numerous graphics enhancements such as the integral graphics processor for high-definition hardware image decoding, the Intel Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) instruction set for faster floating-point capabilities, and a modular design to simplify upgrades. The graphics section comprises an array of parallel execution units for 3D applications and hardware acceleration for high-speed encoding/decoding of high-definition video. These new multicore processors also utilize the Intel Active Management Technology (AMT) and Intel vPro Technology to enable remote system management for monitoring, troubleshooting, and content updates even when powered down.

Standards reduce fragmentation

NEC is creating the standardized hardware platform for the Next-Generation Digital Signage project, which combines a specialized display system that combines interactivity, audience measurement, and remote management. The NEC controller module and display are based on Intel’s Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) defining the electrical, mechanical, and thermal specifications for a plug-in module containing the computing system necessary to drive a digital signage display panel. Intel created the specification to reduce fragmentation within the digital signage market and to simplify installation, usage, maintenance, and upgrades. The OPS makes it possible for digital signage manufacturers to rapidly deploy large numbers of interoperable systems while reducing development, implementation, and support costs.

In addition to the Windows Embedded Standard operating system formerly known as XPe, Microsoft has defined or renamed several specialized versions of Windows Embedded including Compact (formerly CE), POSReady (WEPOS), Enterprise, Automotive, Server, Thin Client, and Handheld. Unique documentation, examples, and possible hardware selections to fit the category support each of these variants. Microsoft also recently released the Windows Embedded Device Manager, which allows you to deploy and update images for all your embedded devices from a single tool. With all these platforms and support tools, developers have plenty of options to handle the escalating complexity of tomorrow’s embedded projects.

Warren Webb’s background includes more than 30 years as an engineer and entrepreneur developing high-tech products for the aerospace and health care industries. Most recently, he has been writing articles on hardware design, software development, and emerging technologies for international trade magazines. Warren holds an MBA from Pepperdine University, an MS in Electrical Engineering from San Diego State, and a High Honors BSEE from the University of Tennessee.

More online:

Migrating to Windows Embedded Standard 7 white paper http://opsy.st/hxzypt

Intel Core Processor Family webcast http://opsy.st/gZwBIy

Warren Webb, Editorial Director
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