Chip Targets Automation Needs

“The chip combines some old, familiar features with some new and pretty innovative features.”

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Since its founding 14 years ago, Innovasic Semiconductor Inc. (www.innovasic.com) has made its living in a relative backwater of the world of microelectronics—designing and delivering 100 percent compatible replacement parts for obsolete chips. When a major semiconductor supplier discontinues a line of microcontrollers or peripheral chips that are still needed by original equipment manufacturers, Innovasic can come to the rescue.

A big chunk of Innovasic’s business comes from the industrial automation market. The Albuquerque, N.M.-based company counts numerous major automation vendors among its customers, including ABB, GE, Honeywell, Invensys, Rockwell Automation, Schneider Electric and Siemens. As a result, says Innovasic Chief Executive Officer Keith Prettyjohns, the company has a strong idea of the kinds of features that industrial customers need and want in a microcontroller chip.

Breaking out

Now, Innovasic has big plans for putting that knowledge to work. On Sept. 19, the company made a move to break out of its role as a copycat-only integrated circuit designer, by introducing a fresh, new 32-bit microcontroller chip of its own design. The chip, called the fido1100 (for Flexible Input Deterministic Output) microcontroller, is aimed squarely at industrial embedded control applications.

With volume shipments scheduled for this year’s fourth quarter, the fido1100 contains architectural features “that you won’t find in any other microcontroller chip on the market,” Prettyjohns claims. These include structures called Universal I/O controllers (UICs) that can be programmed to support a variety of input/output protocols, as well as on-chip, hardware-based context management and other features designed to achieve rock-solid determinism for safety-critical and real-time control applications. Thanks to these and other features, the fido chip represents what Innovasic Marketing Manager Shawn Strzepek refers to as “a new class of industrial microcontroller.”

That statement “does sound a little bit like marketing hyperbole,” observes Jim Turley, a microprocessor analyst based in Pacific Grove, Calif. “But in this case, I think there’s a lot of truth in that. [The fido chip] is a very interesting device that combines some old, familiar features with some new and pretty innovative features,” allows Turley, who is the owner and principal analyst for Silicon Insider (www.jimturley.com), a newsletter covering microprocessors and semiconductor technology.

According to Prettyjohns, Innovasic’s decision to incorporate context management in hardware on the fido chip will save significant time and effort for industrial embedded systems designers. In embedded systems, the management of  “contexts,” or tasks, that must be performed reliably, such as time-critical or safety-critical functions, is usually done in software. This requires a great deal of software testing to make sure that the system is fail-safe, and even then, according to Prettyjohns, errors can occur.

“There could be a problem where a piece of memory gets overwritten and that could completely corrupt another task,” Prettyjohns says. But in the fido, five space- and time-partitioned “hardware contexts” are integrated in silicon on the chip. This eliminates much of the need for extensive software testing, he says. “And with the fido, the chip itself has no ability to write over the memory of one task from another one,” says Prettyjohns, meaning that critical tasks can’t be corrupted.

Also key for industrial users is the fido chip’s four on-chip UICs, which the company describes as programmable peripheral engines. By loading in one of various standard libraries, the UIC can be programmed to provide any of various interfaces, including UART, GPIO, 10/100 Ethernet, CAN, I2C or SPI, the company says. This means that users need stock only one chip to serve many applications, says Prettyjohns. This is in contrast to most general purpose microcontroller families, which require separate part numbers for each I/O configuration needed.

Other fido features include a debugging environment designed with industrial users in mind that relies on hardware features built into the chip to greatly simplify debug and reduce time to market.

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