NEW YORK In a bid to grab a slice of embedded design starts that would otherwise go straight to silicon, board maker Ampro Computers Inc. is launching a novel approach to application prototyping and deployment.
The Encore 500 is a small-form-factor single-board computer aimed at speeding the prototyping and deployment of Internet-aware applications as well as network-connected embedded systems.
In an unusual move, Ampro (San Jose, Calif.) is pitching Encore as much against embedded devices as against traditional boards. "It's something that looks and smells like a very high-integration system-on-chip," said Paul Rosenfeld, senior vice president of marketing at Ampro. He characterized the device as being halfway between a chip and a board. "We call it a module," he said.
The main selling rub Ampro aims to capitalize on is the pressure on engineers to shorten time-to-market, which is a critical means of getting a jump on the competition when fielding Internet-aware embedded systems.
End of runway
"They're trying to enable engineers to get platforms ready more quickly," said Paul Zorfass, principal embedded analyst at First Data. "They're really assembling all the components on the board the processor, real-time operating system and other software to make a complete system. From that point of view, it makes sense."
"This is a radically different business than it was five years ago," said Rosenfeld.
The big difference is that the traditional standalone embedded product is tied in to the Internet. "All these embedded devices are getting connected," said Rosenfeld.
Though no one really knows how quickly this trend will catch fire, the number that's frequently bandied about most notably by Wind River (Alameda, Calif.) chairman Jerry Fiddler is that there will be 1 billion connected devices in three to five years.
Encore modules interface to baseboards throug h a 120-pin PCI connector. The Encore 500 supports Intel's 266-MHz mobile Pentium architecture and will sample in CPCI and EBX form factors. Pentium II and Pentium III versions will follow next year. Ampro also plans to disclose support soon for a number of RISC microprocessors but declined to specify details.
Encore will ship with a base operating system that supports everyone on the board; users will write the drivers to support custom additions. "You can cram a lot of stuff onto a board more than you can on a system-on-chip today," claimed Rosenfeld.
Although single-board computers even small-form-factor designs such as EBX and CPCI will never achieve the miniaturization achieved in a purpose-built design, the fact that they are not exactly behemoths and that they can move to market relatively quickly bodes well for their future, especially outside of their traditional application on the factory floor.
"What we're targeting is the 95 percent o f the market who say they have to design their own active backplane," Rosenfeld said.
"Ampro's approach is very attractive from the Internet appliance point of view, because you're talking about a small form-factor that's attractive for consumer products like Web browsers," added analyst Zorfass.