No way back for the 'smart' microcontroller, says Microchip

Richard Wilson

Electronics Weekly

Microcontrollers are becoming system-on-chip (SoC) devices and there is no way back for the ubiquitous controller device, says supplier Microchip.

Even low cost 8-bit microcontrollers now integrate a large number of peripheral circuits ranging from timers to encryption circuits, which operate independently of the processor core. This not only increases the performance of the device, it also extends its capabilities and application areas.

“There is no such thing as a traditional microcontroller anymore,” Lucio Di Jasio business development manager Europe at Microchip told Electronics Weekly.

No way back for the 'smart' microcontroller, says Microchip
Lucio Di Jasio.

“The microcontroller of 10 years ago had none of the features the designer expects today. There is no way back from this point,” said Di Jasio.

The attraction of the microcontroller is that it is easy to design into a product. As the functional complexity has increased designers have needed to familiarise themselves with new software and design tools.

“So now an 8-bit microcontroller is a bunch of hardware peripherals in a box and the processor core is used to configure them,” said Di Jasio.

It mirrors what has happened with FPGAs, but with a difference says Di Jasio.

“The FPGA requires complex design tools and is more wasteful in the use of gates,” said Di Jasio. “We are talking to traditional embedded control designers. We remove the granularity of the gate and give them large circuit blocks and then made the blocks smarter.”

Moving hardware functions out of the core also goes against the traditional of embedded design which says everything can be solved by increasing processor performance.

“In a sense this goes against the flow which says that ‘more MIPS is better’,” said Di Jasio.

“More performance doesn’t mean your control application is more responsive. The key is reducing the number of interrupts,” said Di Jasio.

The idea is that by giving the humble 8-bit microcontroller a number of what Di Jasio calls “core independent peripherals” which operate independently, the designer can eliminate the bottleneck interrupts which limits responsiveness.

“We have demonstrated that using a slow microcontroller with less MIPS it is possible to have a more responsive system,” said Di Jasio.

“Maybe this eliminates some software but we do not hate software, we accept that the designer will require more software tools for these microcontrollers,” said Di Jasio.

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