Set to follow Microsoft's embedded software roadmap

A survey of four core Microsoft platforms focused around the embedded space.

Microsoft has historically been the undisputed leader when it comes to desktop personal computer Operating Systems (OSs). As PC technology has evolved from desktop computers to laptops, Consumer Internet Devices (CIDs), Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs), and smart phones, Microsoft’s Windows Embedded platforms and technologies have proliferated into those devices as well.

The primary driver for this has been twofold: user familiarity with the look and feel of the Windows graphical user interface and the ability to run Windows applications on these smaller devices. Microsoft’s Windows Server has also enjoyed success in enterprise applications due to its connectivity and synergy with the Windows desktop environment. What you might not be aware of is Microsoft’s efforts to move the Windows OS into the traditional embedded space, a space that includes COM Express applications. In this month’s column, we’ll take a look at Microsoft’s history and recently announced roadmap for the embedded environment and what makes this strategy applicable to embedded systems.

Windows applicability for embedded applications

The historical argument against using Windows in an embedded application is the infamous “blue screen of death” that may have been experienced when using a Windows PC. Many embedded applications like industrial control and robotics can’t afford a bug that could cause robot arms to go spinning out of control.

Pinning the “blue screen of death” strictly on a Windows OS reliability problem is pretty unfair. Like most embedded OSs, the Windows Embedded family is multithreaded with strong memory protection. And the compatibility and conformance validation among the massive number of Windows-compliant hardware and software suppliers for the Windows OS environment is strict. However, guaranteed fail-safe operation of every possible desktop PC combination of hardware, driver, and application components within the Windows environment is unrealistic.

Testing … testing … and still more testing

A closer look shows that Microsoft’s attention to software and hardware component reliability and interoperability on the desktop translates favorably to the embedded environment. Few (if any) other embedded OSs can rival the sheer volume of software testing that occurs with a Windows platform on a daily basis. The embedded environment can also be more closely controlled. Also, Microsoft’s interoperability and conformance testing of components branded with the Windows logo forms a stable baseline upon which to build further reliability testing.

Windows Embedded platforms

Microsoft delivers four core platforms focused around the embedded space:

1.   Windows Embedded CE – Windows Embedded CE is a componentized Real-Time Operating System (RTOS) for a wide range of small footprint consumer and enterprise devices.

With the latest release of Windows Embedded CE 6.0 R3, device manufacturers can use familiar tools and innovative technologies to create devices differentiated by an immersive user interface, a rich browsing experience, and a unique connection to Windows PCs, servers, services, and devices. By building on the high-performance and highly reliable Windows Embedded CE platform, device makers can bring their devices to market quickly and efficiently.

2.   Windows Embedded Standard – Windows Embedded Standard 2011 delivers the Windows 7 OS in a highly customizable and componentized form, enabling OEMs in industrial automation, entertainment, consumer electronics, and other markets to readily create product differentiation. The Community Technology Preview (CTP) of Windows Embedded Standard 2011 is currently available for download here: http://connect.microsoft.com/windowsembedded. The platform will be released in the first half of this year.

3. Windows Embedded Enterprise – Windows 7 Professional for Embedded Systems and Windows 7 Ultimate for Embedded Systems are the next-generation platforms in the Windows Embedded Enterprise portfolio. Both are fully functional, license-restricted versions of the Windows 7 desktop OS with full Windows application compatibility intended for use in embedded devices, including ATMs, kiosks, industrial PCs, and medical devices. One common platform form factor for these devices is COM Express – a Computer-On-Module (COM) form factor that is essentially a miniaturized PC with I/O you’d expect on a PC motherboard.

4. Windows Embedded Server – Windows Server 2008 R2 for Embedded Systems builds on the Windows Server 2008 for Embedded Systems platform, with new features to assist OEMs in delivering dedicated embedded solutions and appliances with increased reliability and flexibility for unified messaging, telecommunications, security, medical imaging, and industrial automation markets. New virtualization tools, management enhancements, and Server Core help save time and reduce costs, making Windows Server 2008 R2 for Embedded Systems a highly robust and reliable foundation on which to deliver dedicated solutions and appliances. Target platforms range from the COM Express appliances mentioned earlier through CompactPCI, MicroTCA, and AdvancedTCA form factors.

These four platforms support the market horizontally, comprising a core group of technology modules made available for a wide variety of consumer and traditional embedded environment profiles. Microsoft also supports vertical or device markets with its Windows Embedded POSReady 2009 platform. This flexible OS connects Point-Of-Service (POS) solutions with peripherals, servers, and services. These component technologies include built-in networking capabilities, touch-screen control, and wired or wireless network communications to back room inventory servers. Another supported market is Portable Navigation Devices (PNDs) through the Windows Embedded NavReady platform, which delivers global positioning, map retrieval, touch-screen, and speech capability.

Microsoft’s embedded history and roadmap

Microsoft’s embedded efforts started in 2001 with Windows NT Embedded. The Windows NT OS was broken into smaller components with a build system incorporated that allowed individual capabilities to be included or excluded in the OS build. This technology continued to evolve with XP Embedded in 2003. In September 2008, Microsoft released the Windows Embedded Standard 2009 based on Windows XP Service Pack 3. The branding change to Windows Embedded Standard from the Windows desktop naming conventions helped differentiate the componentized and build-system capabilities of the OS’s embedded version.

The latest Microsoft Windows Embedded announcements happened last fall with the announcement of the CTP of Windows Embedded Standard 2011 and the release of Windows Embedded CE 6.0 R3. On September 1, 2009, Windows Embedded Standard 2011 went into CTP to embedded OEMs and partners. (Microsoft uses CTP as a beta period where the product is available to the community for feedback while not yet commercially available.) The technology incorporated into this latest Windows release includes:

·    Internet Explorer 8 (IE8): Comes with features around the protected mode and security applicable to kiosk manufacturers for security and browsing capability.

·    Windows Media Player 12: Bandwidth reservation and seamless multimedia application for those building digital storage/access devices.

 

Figure 1 shows the Windows Embedded roadmap and the platform capabilities and enhancements.

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Figure 1: Windows Embedded roadmap

 

Form (and component choice) follows function

Figure 2 shows the modular architecture of the Windows Embedded platform. From the OEM’s perspective, each component represents a modular building block that can be included or excluded based on functional requirements. The modules are roughly broken into the core components (OS, core drivers, and services), drivers, and specific feature sets. It’s also worth noting that the Windows Embedded family of OSs targets x86/Pentium 32-bit and 64-bit class CPUs.

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Figure 2: OEMs view each component as a building block.


The types of devices created on the modular build environment include printers and digital signage devices. Windows Embedded, along with Intel, introduced one digital signage proof-of-concept device at the National Retail Federation’s 2010 Annual Conference and expo on kiosks and user interface industrial automation devices. Microsoft is pursuing a Windows Embedded strategy of making desktop technology power available to OEMs in a modular way, so they can efficiently integrate embedded systems.

One strong point for Windows Embedded is the synergy between these technologies and the enterprise Windows environment for embedded devices that need to communicate with enterprise servers or desktops. Windows Embedded devices have a wide range of connectivity options, from traditional socket-based communication through full-fledged Windows domains and Windows networked file sharing services. This high level of connectivity allows specialized embedded devices to be incorporated into Windows domain networks. Applying corporate compliance policies to the embedded device happens in the same manner as for desktops and helps in managing the overall corporate infrastructure.

Specialized toolkit capabilities for a variety of wired and wireless connectivity protocols in addition to higher layer services like Windows domains are available.

Another interesting take on embedded device user input goes beyond keyboards, mice, and touch screens. Microsoft’s “multitouch” capability makes it possible for hand, arm, or body motions to control the input to the embedded device and opens up a variety of new medical and industrial embedded systems applications.

Perhaps the best example of the flexibility that the toolkits provide within a specific module is the user interface software. At the lowest level, an embedded system user interface might only have a command line interface for control, management, and reporting. Access permissions are included where an administrator can access an expanded set of controls. At the highest level is a full-fledged Web browser interface for administration, configuration, control, and reporting.

Between these two extremes lie three additional programming interface layers. Developers can build a more robust and efficient customized user interface shell using a rendering engine. The layer above includes some plug-ins that allow for applications such as Flash or Javascript. Above this layer, additional plug-in capabilities include a favorites bar where embedded URLs can be referenced for various services. This layer also contains the various browser bar tools familiar to Internet Explorer users. The entire Internet Explorer capability can be incorporated into the embedded device.

Case study – KUKA Robot Group

KUKA Robot Group is the third largest robotics manufacturer in the world and pioneered the concept of PC-based robotics controllers in a digital factory.

KUKA’s first PC-based controller was released in 1996 using Microsoft Windows Embedded NT 4.0. The PC-based controller cost half as much as competitor offerings, was more expandable, and delivered higher levels of performance.

KUKA gained the ability to deliver more adaptable controllers to the market at lower cost, and the company’s internal development time shrunk significantly due to the development environment and familiarity with the Windows OS.

KUKA Robot Group recently evaluated software solutions for its newest generation of controllers, citing the following requirements:

·    Programming tools for creating network applications so that as new assembly lines come online or existing ones change, the controller programs can be quickly and easily adapted.

·    A familiar and recognizable visual user interface to reduce operator training time and lower the risk of configuration errors due to lack of familiarity with the user interface.

·    The ability to securely provision, control, manage, and reprogram controllers via the Internet over the corporate network using Windows domains and configuration utilities service to lower the overall operation costs associated with the controller.

 

Windows Embedded Standard 2009, based on the Embedded Windows XP technology, met these requirements. The KUKA embedded controller can run thousands of existing Windows applications, and developers can incorporate any of the available Windows drivers needed for the controller product.

The development efficiency didn’t stop with the KUKA development team. KUKA customers can minimize operator costs because these individuals can be productive immediately due to the familiar look and feel of the Windows visual user interface. Using existing Windows management tools and network partitioning eliminates the need for specialized configuration and management tools and makes managing the devices simpler.

With 25 subsidiaries around the world, KUKA needed the ability to internationalize the product, another key benefit of Windows Embedded. In Microsoft’s customer solution case study, KUKA reported that it took only three weeks to convert the entire software system into the Russian language. The newest generation controller offers more than 10 languages that operators can select with a simple mouse click.

Summary

It will be interesting to watch the Windows OS evolve as it targets embedded platforms like CompactPCI, MicroTCA, and AdvancedTCA. Specifically for COM Express platforms, Microsoft presents a familiar user interface; synergy with enterprise servers; an extensive partner ecosystem that provides driver support for myriad network, graphics, and user interface chips; and a branding program that can serve as a solid, reliable baseline for embedded devices ranging from smart phones to medical and robotics devices.

For more information, contact Curt at [email protected]