January 11, 2017

A Homage to Hardware Engineers

BY :     January 11, 2017

As software developers, we have learned to take for granted the effects of Moore’s Law. We have become inured to the attitude that, if processors aren’t quite fast enough to run a large, complex program fast enough today, the next release of improved hardware tomorrow will do the trick.

We plan for such growth in processing power as a matter of fact, without thinking how far and fast hardware has improved and continues to do so on a predictable track.

As a former hardware engineer, and someone who thoroughly understands the relentless progress of Moore’s Law, I sometimes still stand in wonder of the progress that’s been made.

(For comparison, when I last did IC design, the feature size was on the order of one micron. Today’s CPUs are using features sizes of 17 nm–60 times smaller.)

My interest in the introduction of new devices for IoT development and deployment, and my involvement in the Maker Culture has reminded me of this progress in a tangible way.

I was recently doing some exploratory work with the Raspberry Pi Zero and the ESP8266 ESP-01 WiFi module. Both are amazing examples of technological innovations in hardware.

The Raspberry Pi platform, for those unfamiliar with it, is:

…a series of credit card-sized single-board computers developed in the United Kingdom by the Raspberry Pi Foundation to promote the teaching of basic computer science in schools and in developing countries. — Wikipedia

The platform is supported by a large number of open-source and commercial OS images, IDEs and toolchains, making it the platform of choice for Maker development.

The most recent version of this platform, the Raspberry Pi Zero, is a marvel of compactness that gave me pause. It’s less than the size of a credit card but contains a processor more powerful than computers of the 1980s. And it sells for just $5 USD.

Raspberry Pi Zero held in fingers

Amazing as the Raspberry Pi Zero is, the ESP8266 platform is even more amazing.

The ESP8266 is a low-cost Wi-Fi chip with full TCP/IP stack and MCU (Micro Controller Unit) capability produced by Shanghai-based Chinese manufacturer, Espressif Systems. — Wikipedia

The ESP8266 comes in a variety of packages, ranging from the ESP-01 to the ESP-12, differing only in the number of I/O pins brought out to the edge of the board and therefore easily available to the designer. The ESP-01 sells for just $4 USD.

ESP8266 ESP-01 next to a US quarter

Open-source software stacks that are replacements for the simple, AT-style command structure intrinsic to the ESP8266 abound.

With the addition of the NodeMCU SDK to the ESP8266 ESP-01 model, one has access to a WiFi-connected, general purpose embeddable controller that has power undreamed of just a few short years ago.

I have recently been experimenting with both the Raspberry Pi Zero and the ESP8266 ESP-01 as components of a home monitoring and automation system and have been reminded, once again, that even with decades of time to become jaded, I can still be amazed by the pace of technology.

Just to put it in perspective, in the 1960’s we put a man on the moon with technology that looks ludicrously simple compared to today’s capabilities, compared against the Apollo Guidance Computer:

Apollo Guidance Computer replica DSKY Apollo Guidance Computer

;

Apollo Guidance ComputeriPhone 6Raspberry Pi ZeroESP8266 ESP-01
Frequency2.048 MHz1.4 GHz1 GHz160 MHz
Memory4 KB RAM (data memory), 72 KB ROM (program memory)Up to 256 GB512 MB64 KB of instruction RAM, 96 KB of data RAM
PortsDSKY, IMU, Hand Controller, Rendezvous Radar (CM), Landing Radar (LM), Telemetry Receiver, Engine Command, Reaction Control SystemLightning (480 Mbps)USB 2.0, HDMI, SD CardSerial @ 115,200 baud, 2 GPIO pins, 802.11bgn WiFi, 10 bit ADC
Power Consumption55 W1 W0.7 W0.3 W
Weight70 lb (32 kg)4.55 oz (129 g)0.3 oz (9 g)0.05 oz (1.5 g)
Dimensions24 12.5 6.5 in (61 32 17 cm)5.44 x 2.64 x 0.27 in (138.1 x 67.0 x 6.9 mm)2.6 x 1.2 x 0.2 in (65 x 30 x 5 mm)0.6 x 1.0 x 0.1 in (14.3 24.8 x 3 mm)
Cost$150,000 USD$1,000 USD (256 GB model)$5 USD$4 USD
NotesNot reprogrammablePhone, handheld computer, Internet access deviceProgrammable, embeddable computerProgrammable, embeddable controller

So, next time you write and run that program on a multi-core server, or run that Javascript in a browser, or test that idea for a new IoT product, take a moment to remember “it hasn’t always been so” and offer thanks to the legions of hardware engineers who make such things possible.

Richard Fall

About

I am currently the National Solution Architect, Digital Platforms and IoT for Sogeti, working from the Des Moines, Iowa office. My interests lie in the areas of micro-services, SaaS, and IoT systems.

More on Richard Fall.

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    *Opinions expressed on this blog reflect the writer’s views and not the position of the Sogeti Group