Embedded product developers who want to add Internet connectivity to their designs may now have a simple way to do it, thanks to a tiny new Ethernet controller from Microchip Technology, Inc.
Touted as the world’s smallest Ethernet controller, Microchip’s ENC28J60 reportedly simplifies the task of adding connectivity to embedded products because it is smaller and is designed to work with any microcontroller that has an industry-standard serial interface. The company’s engineers say it is the first such Ethernet controller aimed specifically at the embedded world.
“If you look at what’s been on the market up to now, you find that stand-alone Ethernet controllers have always been designed for the PC market,” says Nate Smith, product marketing manager for Microchip Technology. “For years, the embedded market has been trying to force-fit a square peg into a round hole, so we set out to develop a controller that would give the embedded designer the ability to create networks.”
The company plans to target the new technology at a multitude of applications that didn’t previously offer Internet connectivity, or used proprietary protocols to achieve it. Potential applications include vending machines, hotel mini-bars, security panels, access control systems, fingerprint recognition systems, industrial controllers, power supplies, point-of-service terminals, VoIP (voice over IP) phone adaptors, and a multitude of other devices with embedded intelligence.
Microchip engineers claim that one of the keys to success in those applications is the use of a 28-pin package, instead of the more traditional 80- to 100-pin packages, which have been employed by the PC industry for many years. The smaller package is critical, the company says, because the 28-pin package is typically about one-sixth the size of a 100-pin version, enabling it to serve in applications that might otherwise be constrained by size. Moreover, they say, the smaller package reduces the cost of associated printed circuit boards and conforms to the SPI serial interface, which is a virtual standard throughout the embedded world.
Microchip’s Ethernet interface boards are designed to ease development of applications using the ENC28J60 Ethernet controller.
“In the past, when third parties tried to enable small-pin-count devices for Internet connectivity, they had to develop their own proprietary protocols,” Smith says. “And those protocols weren’t consistent with the rest of the embedded world.”
The new device includes a 10 Mbps SPI interface, an on-chip 10 Mbps Ethernet physical layer, and programmable 8-Kbyte dual-port SRAM buffer. Microchip engineers describe it as a compatible companion chip for virtually microcontroller any used by the embedded market.
“Today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a microcontroller that doesn’t have an SPI interface,” Smith says. Microchip engineers believe that the new device will find a big market in remote diagnostics applications, especially in appliances, factory machinery, and point-of-service terminals. The technology builds on the growing popularity of Ethernet, which has become a networking staple on many factory floors, as well as in front offices.
“We expect it to expand the use of Ethernet,” Smith says. “It’s going to enable a whole new class of Ethernet-based applications.”
A four-wire SPI serial interface enables the Ethernet controller to be used with virtually any embedded microcontroller.
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