Opportunities abound in cloud 'clutter'

Gene Frantz, Principal Fellow, Texas Instruments -December 10, 2012

This article is part of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013 feature, where EDN editors and guest contributors examine some of the hot trends and technologies in 2012 that promise to shape technology news in 2013 and beyond.

The cloud means many things to many people, but irrespective of how you define it, the opportunities for engineers to innovate abound with regard to developing the technologies essential to the cloud and its enablement.

Before I elaborate on those opportunities and technologies, first let me separate the concept of the cloud into three aspects: the clouds, the clutter, and the communications pipes.

The clouds: One mistake we make is assuming the cloud is singular, when it is actually thousands of clouds selectively connected. My house has a cloud; my company has many clouds; every coffee shop has a cloud. (I have another story to share on this idea, but not here.)

The clutter: Several words have been used to describe those things attached to the cloud(s). I use the term “clutter” to suggest the lack of standardization and organization. It will just be clutter for now. Any attempt to organize it will tend to destroy innovation within that clutter.

The communications pipes: There will be communications between clouds, from clutter to cloud, and from clutter to clutter. Techniques will be chosen according to their ability to handle the communication link being made.

For the clutter, there are many technologies at our fingertips for enabling that—for example, ultralow-power processors. I reserve the right to give TI the credit for driving this aspect, recognizing that battery operation has been a focus of TI since the invention of the calculator in the mid-1960s. It really took hold as we drove into the digital cell-phone market.

Then there’s power management to get the most out of our energy sources. Three aspects to consider here are energy scavenging (from such sources as solar, vibration, and the human body), efficient power conversion, and energy buffering. I use the term “buffering” (versus “storage”) to keep us from jumping to the simple EE answers of batteries and capacitors. This approach broadens the possibilities to include any storage medium, such as springs, balloons, or gravity. This area is a huge one for innovation. Many of us have stored up energy ready for use in more abundance than we wish to talk about (think: fat).

Figure 1 Ultralow-power processors, such as those represented by the MSP430-series MCUs from TI, are critical to enabling the proliferation of what could well be called the “clutter” around the cloud. Many of the current opportunities for engineers reside in designing that clutter.

The clutter also provides opportunities for innovations in wireless communications and smart sensors. I am careful to point out that wireless-communications does not automatically mean RF. There are many ways to do wireless communications beyond RF-based concepts. One might remember that the oldest wireless-communications method was not RF; it was smoke signals. Other wireless techniques include ultrasonic, electromagnetic, optical (for example, LED lights), and audio band (for example, ULF). All can be employed to connect to the cloud and to connect cloud-to-cloud.

Smart sensors have three components: the sensor itself; then the analog front end, to take the analog input from the sensor and output data; and the digital front end, to take the data from the AFE and create information for the central processor, which uses the information to make decisions. Sometimes, DFEs are called DSPs.

Other clutter areas include operating systems and development environments, which are vital, as the cloud needs to be accessible to “normal,” nontechnical people. I call this the democratization of the cloud and of technology in general. It involves making it all easy to use so that it can pull in innovators who do not understand the technology but only want to use it. Toward that end, platforms such as Arduino are succeeding in pulling in the non-nerds.

That said, even though we have made it possible for a broader range of innovators to participate in the creation of the clutter, there will remain a need for the technical community to make it happen.

The cloud still needs to be very efficient, and it requires operating systems that have a small memory footprint and are easy to configure. (Note I used the term “configure” rather than “program.”) Add in data-analysis engines, privacy issues, and low-power requirements, and it’s clear that engineers have much to chew on, innovationwise, for many years to come.

That said, I’ll keep it simple:

  • Drive for low power.
  • Aim for ease of use.

Read more of EDN's Hot Technologies: Looking ahead to 2013:

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