Wireless technology plays a major part in the Internet of Things (IoT) but deploying this technology can involve a good bit of programming. Applications must address a range of issues including features like secure over-the-air (OTA) updates.
In this Q&A, Silicon Labs’ senior product manager for Xpress devices Parker Dorris discusses some of the questions that come up when talking about the programming burden of wireless applications.
We’re targeting Bluetooth Low Energy-enabled sensors, smartphone-controlled smart home devices, white goods, and machine-to-machine applications, especially those requiring the additional option of phone configuration and connectivity. We’re already seeing an extremely diverse mix of applications evaluating and developing with these zero-programming IoT solutions, and the common theme in these designs is a need for wireless connectivity without the steep learning curve. The wireless component just works, which enables companies to focus resources on the aspects of a design that will make the product innovative and successful
in the market.
The goal of our Wireless Xpress portfolio is to lower the barriers of entry for IoT end node design by providing easy to use hardware and software solutions that require zero-programming. These Wireless Xpress module products are all about enablement in a few key respects.
First, because a developer is interfacing with Wireless Xpress through a high-level network coprocessor (NCP)-style interface called the Xpress command API, and communicating with a device that takes on as much responsibility for wireless connection and communication as possible, developers don’t have to become Bluetooth or Wi-Fi experts to get to market quickly.
While you don’t have to write code for these module devices, we expose configurable parameters to tweak performance features. Developers don’t have to learn the intricacies of stack APIs and getting a module to some configured state; they just set a variable. This command API feature helps developers avoid some of the more common challenge points that can snag developers new to a wireless protocol.
Wireless Xpress takes advantage of Silicon Labs’ Gecko OS, an intuitive, simple-to-use IoT operating system. Wireless Xpress devices also focus on enablement in the sense that because the device handles wireless-related responsibilities so comprehensively with the Gecko OS firmware running under the hood, developers don’t have to choose an MCU that will be able to handle low-level wireless maintenance, or granular monitoring through a lower-level NCP protocol. Developers can choose the MCU that’s right for their application, rather than choosing the MCU that’s right for their NCP.
We’ve launched Bluetooth Xpress modules in PCB module and system-in-package (SiP) module options, called BGX13P and BGX13S, respectively. We also offer two zero-programming Wi-Fi Xpress modules, the AMW007 and AMW037.
For Bluetooth Xpress, we’ve launched the Xpress framework for both iOS and Android. Developing mobile apps can sometimes be a challenge for product developers, and developing a BLE-connected app is its own specialized skillset. With the Xpress framework, we abstract low-level mobile OS core Bluetooth APIs behind a few easy-to-use APIs.
This is really helpful to developers for two reasons. First, the Xpress framework handles all the Bluetooth-specific scanning and discovery, interrogation, connection and GATT table communication. For instance, to scan, you call startScan, and the framework delivers a list of discovered devices. To connect, you call connectToDevice, and the framework handles the rest.
Second, the framework looks largely the same for both iOS and Android, unifying an interface that really works quite differently between the two OSes. So if a developer learns to connect to Bluetooth Xpress in iOS, those same function calls are going to work identically in Android. For Wi-Fi Xpress, we’re offering a web app that is served by a Wi-Fi Xpress device and provides a RESTful API to control the module and access a file system.
One great thing about these module products is that the Xpress command API is human-readable, and so developers can evaluate the product and fully exercise features with a simple terminal program running on a PC.
We’ve launched two evaluation kits, the Wireless Xpress BGX13P kit and the AMW007-E04 kit, each offering a serial to USB bridge so access to the board looks like a COM port. For developers that want a more context-rich evaluation experience and a graphical interface, we offer the Xpress Configurator tool in Silicon Labs’ Simplicity Studio development environment. Xpress Configurator logically groups different configurable parameters, validates configurable settings, and displays documentation for each parameter. All of this configuration results in one or more Xpress commands getting sent to the Wireless Xpress module through a terminal interface built into the tool.
Developers have access to network management and mapping tools. The tools provide a high-level view of the system. The network analyzer tracks wireless node activity in real time proving insights for debugging and system optimization.
For Bluetooth Xpress, we offer over the air (OTA) support through the Xpress framework. If Silicon Labs releases a firmware update to Bluetooth Xpress, this signed, encrypted update can be pulled from our cloud with a single framework API. Wi-Fi Xpress products can access the cloud directly to receive firmware updates. Developers can also use this built-in cloud connectivity to perform device health checks in the field and retrieve other key, application specific metrics as well.
Date: Wednesday, November 07, 2018
Time: 10:00 AM Central European Time
Duration: 1 hour
IoT applications increasingly benefit from Bluetooth connectivity. Adding Bluetooth 5 to a product, however, can take significant resources and expertise. With zero programming and drop-and-connect simplicity, Silicon Labs' Wireless Xpress streamlines the design of smart home, commercial, and industrial IoT applications, reducing complexity and time-to-market.
In this webinar, we explore Silicon Labs’ Bluetooth Xpress and provide a technical demonstration of how your product can connect to a smartphone or other device with Bluetooth in less than one day.
Over and over, customers tell us they want a wireless link to just work so they can move on and focus on the application they're designing. This week, we delivered on this challenge with the introduction of Wireless Xpress, which gives designers the freedom to go from out of box to prototype within a few hours – versus months – with no software development necessary.
Wireless Xpress provides a configuration-based development experience with everything developers need, including certified Bluetooth® 5 Low Energy (LE) and Wi-Fi® modules, integrated protocol stacks and easy-to-use tools supported by the Silicon Labs Gecko OS operating system.
The new solution simplifies wireless development and eliminates the daunting task of working in numerous and complicated wireless development interfaces. Today’s IoT development teams are often burdened with importing numerous stacks of software, dealing with hundreds of APIs and complex RF integration obstacles, along with writing hundreds of hours of code. Because of these complexities, wireless development is hard to come by, and IoT companies often need to outsource the development, an extremely costly and time-intensive process that slows down time to market. Wireless Xpress removes the need for wireless development since we’ve already done the work for you.
Then there’s cloud connectivity – an onerous challenge for design teams to build from the ground up. Wireless Xpress provides instant cloud connectivity and has built-in firmware updates, along with the ability to retrieve updates and push them out to devices in the field. This functionality removes the need for our customers to pay for subscription-based services to ensure these updates are managed.
Wireless Xpress addresses all of these challenges head-on without a big stack. We take on as much firmware responsibility as possible, with all configuration occurring in the Gecko API. Wireless Gecko is not codeable, but configurable, freeing designers from the headache of wireless design by getting it all in one box.
Putting Application First, Versus Network
Another challenge solved by the new solution, and especially beneficial for low-power applications, is MCU processing constraints. An MCU in a typical wireless design is handling all of the network processing demands versus application needs, creating a situation where customers are often paying more than they need for an MCU. Wireless Xpress offloads the embedded host processing from the MCU and handles processing demands inside the package, reducing the processing performance required and optimizing the chip-set. With Wireless Xpress, you can use a bare bone 8-bit MCU for applications that would have otherwise needed a 32-bit because of RAM, flash, etc. demands.
Support Down to the Silicon
With the Wi-Fi and Bluetooth modules, Silicon Labs is able to go all the way down to the silicon to find a problem. When you look at other pre-programmed modules on the market, what you find is module vendors are not SoC designers – the silicon in these products is from other companies. Therefore, in the support structure, problems tend to be punted to the underlying silicon vendor. This structure really goes against the ease of use experience. Wireless Xpress gives customers one point of contact for wireless design, making it much easier for support and troubleshooting. It’s our silicon – we control every part of the flow, giving us the advantage to optimize design better than anyone on the market.
Our Bluetooth and Wi-Fi modules are pre-programmed, pre-qualified and are pin for pin compatible with our portfolio of products. And they all run through the Gecko Xpress API, which we have already tested to ensure its reliability and flexibility. We’re taking care of the wireless interface on behalf of the customer and giving them back the 3-6 months it would take to build all of the connectivity from scratch.
So many of our customers seeking wireless connectivity are long-standing, established companies in markets that don’t have the in-house resources nor budget to invest in wireless connectivity talent – these companies’ main agenda is to make exceptional products for their markets. Wireless Xpress gives these companies the opportunity to obtain the wireless expertise they need in one package – giving time back to the developers to worry about their own customer needs – instead of complex wireless scenarios that demand too much time and money.
Wireless Xpress is the latest culmination of our strong customer relationships – we listen and design accordingly. Stay tuned as Silicon Labs continues to deliver the IoT solutions designers want to get innovative and high-performing products to the market as fast as possible.
Learn more at silabs.com silabs.com/products/wireless/xpress.