Thinking outside the house

April 18, 2002
Designing a smart appliance? Planning for upgrades up front will save a lot of woes.

By William Peisel
Chief Technology Officer
William Dowell
FAE Manager
NetSilicon Inc.
Waltham, Mass.

Edited by Kathy Franzinger

The FitLinxx System stores a person's workout information, which can then be accessed through a kiosk.

Shoppers can verify product price and view product information before checkout with ScanVue.

NetBotz systems keep a constant check on environmental conditions inside networkoperating systems.

Thanks to ShopVue, retailers can provide informational marketing displays and scrolling advertisements to customers.

The word appliance conjures images of refrigerators, oven ranges, and blenders. But that changed as the popularity of the Internet gave rise to the concept of Internet appliances, electronic devices solely designed to provide simplified personal Internet access. Lost somewhere in the middle was the smart appliance, an electronic device that connected to a network to handle specific tasks better and more efficiently than previously possible. Smart appliances are everywhere, from vehicular and equipment diagnostics systems, exercise machines, and medical-monitoring devices to retail point-of-sale kiosks, network-operating-center monitoring equipment, security cameras, facilities and environmental-management systems, and office-imaging equipment.

It's easier to appreciate what smart appliances are and how they can be used in commercial environments by understanding where they come from. This is also good grounding that helps in planning the technical considerations for an effective smart appliance, including processing power, security, communications protocols, operating systems, networking standards, and integration.

The theory of evolution
Printers were among the first successful examples of a non-PC appliance becoming network-enabled. Files no longer had to be saved onto a floppy, walked to the nearest office printer, loaded, and printed.

With that, smart appliances emerged, and the market is still growing. According to analyst group IDC, vendors shipped approximately 45.5 million smart appliances last year, and it predicts the number will increase to 55.7 million this year. Forrester Research says the market will expand to 16 billion devices by 2010.

As the market develops, smart appliances will evolve in three distinct phases. The first phase involves equipping products, such as printers and security cameras, with essential networking functions, including Ethernet 10/100 and basic Internet connectivity via TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol). To support current performance levels and future software upgrades, 32-bit microprocessors are necessary.

Phase II builds upon Phase I technology by coupling 32-bit processors with advanced networking protocols, such as HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol), SNMP (Simple Network Management Protocol), e-mail services, and FTP (File Transfer Protocol), which offer data collection and distribution among collaborating devices.

In Phase III, smart appliances become fully participatory and autonomous members of the business operation, making local decisions based on shared information with other devices. Among the necessary protocols are XML (Extensible Markup Language), SOAP (Simple Object Access Protocol), Security, UPnP (Universal Plug and Play), JVM (Java Virtual Machine), DCOM, and CORBA. A 32-bit hardware platform is scalable, flexible, and affordable enough to handle Phase III device computing and data throughput.

Where are they now?
It's not difficult to find examples of smart appliances performing useful functions. Combining a graphical display with scanning, database, and networking technologies, Industrial Electronic Engineers Inc., Van Nuys, Calif., developed a family of point-of-sale (POS) products, including ScanVue and ShopVue — smart appliances that provide creative and interactive services for retail customers. With ScanVue, shoppers scan an item's UPC code prior to checkout to verify price and product information. It offers a full-color graphic description of the scanned product, including advertising messages. ShopVue provides POS transactions and digital graphic images on one unit, letting retailers create marketing displays with scrolling advertising and promotional messages.

An important element to the success of these smart appliances is the ability to use a store's standard Ethernet network to give customers kiosk or on-shelf access to local display and pricing data. The units can also communicate via Internet to a remote central database to make rapid price and information downloads possible for chain or franchise operations.

FitLinxx Inc., based in Stamford, Conn., saw opportunity in layering network connectivity onto exercise equipment. The FitLinxx System uses centralized information access and storage, as well as standard Internet technologies, to improve workouts. Fitness centers across the country, including the YMCA, deploy the system. Exercycles, treadmills, and weight machines are retrofitted with intelligence that stores workout information. Users can view immediate progress reports, health information, and e-mail a personal trainer using a FitLinxx kiosk.

Maintaining optimum environmental conditions in network operating centers (NOC) is tantamount to maintaining the integrity of, in some cases, billions of dollars in transactional data and activity. Temperature, humidity, airflow, vibration, and other variables can harm vital equipment in a NOC if they stay outside acceptable parameters. Austin-based NetBotz developed a smart appliance that constantly monitors the environment inside a NOC. The system includes a video camera to record potential intruders.

Network connections let NetBotz be remotely managed via a Web browser. The system can also communicate with its manager via the network to warn of status changes that could harm operations, so operating personnel can head off trouble. The system can monitor equipment within a NOC, periodically polling routers, switches, and servers. Any deviation outside normal operating parameters is recorded and communicated to the IT manager for appropriate action.

Intelligent design
The design of smart appliances is no different than with other electronic products. Elements such as processor type will have a big impact on throughput, scalability, and length of development cycle. Software choices will have similar effects.

Up-front choices affect cost as well. The lower the bill-of-materials costs, the broader the spectrum of devices that can be attached to a network. The ultimate goal is to drive networking costs down to rival the cost of serial or stand-alone devices. Decisions regarding serial, USB, or I2 C interfaces impact costto-performance ratios. Power requirements and temperature range are important as well. Battery-operated products need a thorough analysis of current draw.

As with any product, developers must understand where the product will live out its life cycle and the implications of that environment. Typical considerations include how elemental exposure, human and machine interaction, environmental contamination, and temperature extremes affect performance and potential life expectancy.

Finally, plans must allow for how device traffic will affect other network nodes, if the application is expected to communicate in real time, the threshold for latency toleration, and whether or not designers must consider the "30% rule" — under normal operational circumstances on a shared network, the device can only consume 30% of the available bandwidth.

The choice of technology for main memory impacts where the product can be used, functional parameters, cost, application, availability, and product stability. Depending on the application, there are two primary choices in Random Access Memory (RAM): Static RAM (SRAM) and Synchronous DRAM (SDRAM). SRAM is known for speed and is readily available. It is easy to implement, but limited by low-density and high price. SDRAM is the most widely used RAM technology in today's smart appliance. Processors interact easily with SDRAM, availability is fair to good, and cost-permegabyte ratios are excellent compared to SRAM.

Many smart appliances include an embedded Web interface in the form of a Web or FTP server, as well as capability to work with HTTP, e-mail, animations, large graphic files, and custom applications. Remote access and management adds to the appeal and performance of a smart appliance, so an effective Web interface helps with overall design success.

While their costs appear attractive, 8 and 16-bit processors don't have what it takes to support these sorts of Web functions in the future. Generally speaking, a network-ready smart appliance needs to be flexible to handle the demands of a busy network, where the enterprise environment may differ from one location to another. Only 32-bit processors incorporate the necessary stacks for protocols and can accommodate a fullfunction RTOS, often a requirement when dealing with graphics or human interfaces.

Hardware redesigns are costly. This is why platforms need to be devised with room for software enhancements, or even simple modifications. Thirty-two-bit processors are the foundation to this approach. They are also the only practical way of planning for advanced functions such as support for wireless interfaces like Bluetooth or 802.11.

Finally, security is increasingly an issue as smart appliances expand into commercial networks. Again, a 32-bit platform is instrumental in effective security measures. Most devices used in retail stores, manufacturing facilities, medical complexes, and commercial offices are protected mainly by physical location. Of course, physical security doesn't help when devices are added to commercial networks.

Smart appliances may be in early stages of development, but understanding the product's future use can help designers plan for upgrades and iterations. Change will be a constant as this industry and its demands evolve over time.

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