Military Embedded Systems

Throwing a Lasko around serial ports


August 14, 2009

Chris A. Cuifo

Editorial Director

Military Embedded Systems

Freescale?s new MCU uses 10/100 Ethernet to replace the ever-present serial port.

According to IDC, the market for Ethernet equipment will grow at a CAGR of 4.2 percent to $3.2 billion over 2008 to 2013. Meanwhile, Gartner reports, "[Ethernet] port shipments will grow at a compound annual rate of 1.8 percent from 2008 to 2013 … Gigabit Ethernet ports will grow to 49.8 percent of total shipments in 2013." These are big numbers representing a growing market – even in a recession. That's because Ethernet is everywhere.

Say, how many of you remember the bulky, fat yellow cables that usually ran above the office ceiling tiles, punctuated by a big silver tap box dropping a smaller cable down to your computer terminal? Show of hands, please? I'll bet not too many of you would raise your hand. That's because Ethernet has evolved considerably since then to a ubiquitous 10/100/1000 Mbps LAN connecting computers – not terminals – via cheap Cat5e and RJ-45 connectors. The speed keeps going up while the cost goes down as tomorrow's 10 GbE paves the way. I am convinced that Ethernet is on the cusp of being more prevalent than was RS-232 in its day, probably even in military applications.

Freescale – then as Motorola – pioneered the idea of packaging high-performance MCUs with Ethernet controllers. From their humble 68xx QUICC devices to PowerPC-based PowerQUICC MCUs and onward to their current generation of 32-bit MCUs with Ethernet, Trusted Platform Module (TPM), encryption, and more – the company continues to out-innovate the competition in exceptionally full-featured, system-level MCUs. And most of them have Ethernet built right in. Who needs serial ports?

In fact, replacing serial connectivity in myriad systems – from SCADA to factory automation and machine vision, to medical and military – is just what Freescale's MCF51CN128 is all about. Though I hate the nomenclature – can't they just stick with its original code name of Lasko? – the company combines a V1 32-bit ColdFire MCU1 with Ethernet, software, and available board-level development system into one of the most comprehensive off-the-shelf and "ready-to-eat" Ethernet systems I've seen to date2.

From my time in the defense industry, I can attest that serial ports and general-purpose TTL I/O lines are everywhere. What's compelling about Lasko (you see, we're now on a first-name basis) is that it aims to bridge those legacy connections to Ethernet and bring bespoke systems onto local LANs or ready them for Internet access. But I'm not talking about the soda machines, point-of-sale terminals, or Remote Telemetry Units (RTUs) that Freescale is envisioning. I'm referring to "disconnected" military equipment scattered about Navy ships being wired with Ethernet backbones via the Navy Open Architecture mandate, Army and Air Force command posts that string LANs between PCs but still plug in bulky 38999-equipped boxes housing sensors and radios, and in-vehicle vetronics hull/turret (HEU/TEU) units that could benefit from Ethernet connectivity for more than just maintenance or diagnostics.

Lasko intrigues me greatly because it's designed to be so cheap (sorry, Freescale) that it'll replace serial driver devices with Ethernet. At $2.99 in big volumes, it's hard to believe the thing is stuffed with a 12-channel A/D, 2 UARTs, 2 SPI, 2 I2C, 70 GPIO plus Ethernet, and a 32-bit CPU. The company's included MQX OS also adds a TCP/IP stack, Telnet, SSH and SNMP applications, as well as an embedded and secure Web server so equipment can hang off the LAN all by itself and either be queried or squawk back autonomously. As well, in low-power mode, Lasko sips a mere 500 nanoAmps, while using only 50 mA in full mode at 50 MHz (at 3 V).

Deficiencies? Well – Power over Ethernet would be nice, but that's not what Lasko was designed for. There are myriad other members of the MCU family with different flavors if that's your preference – including PowerPC-based MCUs that are equivalent to the IBM-based 440 cores in some Xilinx V-5 FPGAs (just in case code portability is important to you). And since Lasko was designed for industrial apps, it'll work in most wide-temp defense systems, too.

This whole concept of really cheap and ubiquitous Ethernet in military systems has personal significance for me, which is why I'm railing on about it. When I was at Dy4 Systems 10 years ago3 my engineering colleagues thought I was Section 8 when I specified 10 Mb Ethernet on the company's first PowerPC single board computer. "No one will ever use Ethernet in defense," was the conventional wisdom at the time. In fact, Dy4's PPC SBC became hugely successful and took the competition by surprise – partly because of its built-in COTS Ethernet port.

Perhaps Lasko will offer similar market changes by replacing all those serial ports in legacy defense systems. We'll have to wait and see.

Chris A. Ciufo Group Editorial Director [email protected]

1 Interestingly, the V1 ColdFire core is also available as IP for Altera’s Cyclone III FPGAs. V1 is a simplified version of the 68K-inspired V2 core; for more info, refer to:

2 I recently moderated an E-cast with Freescale on the topic of Ethernet called “The Ultimate Ethernet Solution: Connect Serial to Ethernet in Seconds!” (See, then click on Archived – Recent)

3 Dy4 was acquired by Vista Controls and is now part of Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing.


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