The IoT recipe comprises of three key technology components: Sensing, computing and communications.
In 2014, a Goldman Sachs’ report took many people by surprise when it picked Atmel Corporation as the company best positioned to take advantage of the rising Internet of Things (IoT) tsunami. At the same time, the report omitted tech industry giants like Apple and Google from the list of companies that could make a significant impact on the rapidly expanding IoT business. So what makes Atmel so special in the IoT arena?
The San Jose, California–based chipmaker has been proactively building its ‘SMART’ brand of 32-bit ARM-based microcontrollers that boasts an end-to-end design platform for connected devices in the IoT realm. The company with two decades of experience in the MCU business was among the first to license ARM’s low-power processors for IoT chips that target smart home, industrial automation, wearable electronics and more.
Goldman Sachs named Atmel a leader in the Internet of Things (IoT) market
A closer look at the IoT ingredients and Atmel’s product portfolio shows why Goldman Sachs called Atmel a leader in the IoT space. For starters, Atmel is among the handful of chipmakers that cover all the bases in IoT hardware value chain: MCUs, sensors and wireless connectivity.
1. A Complete IoT Recipe
The IoT recipe comprises of three key technology components: Sensing, computing and communications. Atmel offers sensor products and is a market leader in MCU-centric sensor fusion solutions than encompass context awareness, embedded vision, biometric recognition, etc.
For computation—handling tasks related to signal processing, bit manipulation, encryption, etc.—the chipmaker from Silicon Valley has been offering a diverse array of ARM-based microcontrollers for connected devices in the IoT space.
Furthermore, communications across the Internet depends on the TCP/IP stack, which is a 32-bit protocol for transmitting packets on the Internet. Atmel’s microcontrollers are based on 32-bit ARM cores and are well suited for TCP/IP-centric Internet communications fabric.
2. Low Power Leadership
In February 2014, Atmel announced the entry-level ARM Cortex M0+-based microcontrollers for the IoT market. The SAM D series of low-power MCUs—comprising of D21, D10 and D11 versions—featured Atmel’s signature high-end features like peripheral touch controller, USB interface and SERCOM module. The connected peripherals work flawlessly with Cortex M0+ CPU through the Event System that allows system developers to chain events in software and use an event to trigger a peripheral without CPU involvement.
According to Andreas Eieland, Director of Product Marketing for Atmel’s MCU Business Unit, the IoT design is largely about three things: Battery life, cost and ease-of-use. The SAM D microcontrollers aim to bring the ease-of-use and price-to-performance ratio to the IoT products like smartwatches where energy efficiency is crucial. Atmel’s SAM D family of microcontrollers was steadily building a case for IoT market when the company’s SAM L21 microcontroller rocked the semiconductor industry in March 2015 by claiming the leadership in low-power Cortex-M IoT design.
Atmel’s SAM L21 became the lowest power ARM Cortex-M microcontroller when it topped the EEMBC benchmark measurements. It’s plausible that another MCU maker takes over the EEMBC benchmarks in the coming months. However, according to Atmel’s Eieland, what’s important is the range of power-saving options that an MCU can bring to product developers.
“There are many avenues to go down on the low path, but they are getting complex,” Eieland added. He quoted features like multiple clock domains, event management system and sleepwalking that provide additional levels of configurability for IoT product developers. Such a set of low-power technologies that evolves in successive MCU families can provide product developers with a common platform and a control on their initiatives to lower power consumption.
3. Coping with Digital Insecurity
In the IoT environment, multiple device types communicate with each other over a multitude of wireless interfaces like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth Low Energy. And IoT product developers are largely on their own when it comes to securing the system. The IoT security is a new domain with few standards and IoT product developers heavily rely on the security expertise of chip suppliers.
Atmel, with many years of experience in crypto hardware and Trusted Platform Modules, is among the first to offer specialized security hardware for the IoT market. It has recently shipped a crypto authentication device that has integrated the Elliptic Curve Diffie-Hellman (ECDH) security protocol. Atmel’s ATECC508A chip provides confidentiality, data integrity and authentication in systems with MCUs or MPUs running encryption/decryption algorithms like AES in software.
4. Power of the Platform
The popularity of 8-bit AVR microcontrollers is a testament to the power of the platform; once you learn to work on one MCU, you can work on any of the AVR family microcontrollers. And same goes for Atmel’s Smart family of microcontrollers aimed for the IoT market. While ARM shows a similarity among its processors, Atmel exhibits the same trait in the use of its peripherals.
A design engineer can conveniently work on Cortex-M3 and Cortex -M0+ processor after having learned the instruction set for Cortex-M4. Likewise, Atmel’s set of peripherals for low-power IoT applications complements the ARM core benefits. Atmel’s standard features like sleep modes, sleepwalking and event system are optimized for ultra-low-power use, and they can extend IoT battery lifetime from years to decades.
Atmel, a semiconductor outfit once focused on memory and standard products, began its transformation toward becoming an MCU company about eight years ago. That’s when it also started to build a broad portfolio of wireless connectivity solutions. In retrospect, those were all the right moves. Fast forward to 2015, Atmel seems ready to ride on the market wave created by the IoT technology juggernaut.
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Majeed Ahmad is author of books Smartphone: Mobile Revolution at the Crossroads of Communications, Computing and Consumer Electronics and The Next Web of 50 Billion Devices: Mobile Internet’s Past, Present and Future.