November 24, 2015

Latest MIPS-based Creator SBC Reflects Shift to IoT and Sensors

Imagination Technologies this week unveiled a new version of its open source Creator single board computer on Kickstarter, this time with a greater focus on Internet of Things vs. multimedia. Expect to see more IoT-focused boards like the OpenWRT Linux-ready Creator Ci40 that emphasize wireless and peripheral optimization over speed. Like the Ci40, this new wave of IoT boards also features lightweight Linux distributions, support for readymade sensor expansion platforms, and cloud-based IoT endpoint aggregation and control.

Typically, newer generation hacker SBCs have faster processors. Yet, the Creator Ci40 slows down a bit, while at the same time improving the power efficiency and performance of its 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.1, and the 802.15.4–based 6LoWPAN radios, as well as low-power peripherals.

Compared to last year’s Creator Ci20 SBC, which ran on a MIPS-based, dual-core 1.2GHz JZ4780 SoC from Ingenics, the Creator Ci40 taps a slower, dual-core 550MHz cXT200 system-on-chip developed by MIPS IP license holder Imagination. The cXT200 SoC uses Imagination’s energy-efficient, IoT-focused MIPS InterAptiv architecture, which also supports RTOSes running on microcontroller unit (MCU) processors.

Many open source developers have avoided the original Creator board due to its non-standard MIPS architecture and opaque (although powerful) Imagination PowerVR GPU. (Despite this, the otherwise fully open spec, open source Creator ranked in the middle of our 2015 hacker SBC survey.) The mysterious workings of the PowerVR is no longer a problem since the Creator Ci40’s cXT200 is a headless design that lacks a graphics processor entirely.

What the cXT200 does have is Imagination’s Ensigma MACSec connectivity engine for accelerating wireless performance. It also offers a separate, dedicated 802.15.4 chip, and the SoC is closely connected with the Ci40’s onboard TPM chip, reflecting the importance of security for IoT devices.

Android out – OpenWRT and Brillo in

The low-power nature of the cXT200 SoC is also reflected in a change in supported distributions. While the Creator ci20 highlighted Debian and Android support, the Ci40 defaults to OpenWRT Linux, the increasingly popular, lightweight Linux distro typically found on Qualcomm’s popular, MIPS-based Atheros AR9331 SoC. The Ci40 still supports Debian, as well as Buildroot, but OpenWRT is the fully optimized distro here. Android support is gone entirely, but instead you can find support for Google’s lightweight, Android-based Brillo OS.

The 106 x 100mm Creator Ci40 board ships with 256MB of DDR3 RAM and 512MB NAND flash. With all the wireless radios -- and no need for video ports -- real-world connections are limited to a microSD slot, a 10/100 Ethernet port, audio jacks, and a micro-USB 2.0 OTG port.

Like many new Linux-oriented, community-backed SBCs, the latest Creator board sports a Raspberry Pi compatible expansion interface. This should make it easier to port add-in boards to the platform, despite the ARM to MIPS transition.

Clicking into sensors

In addition, the basic kit, which starts at 70 Pounds ($106) includes two of MikroElektronika’s MCU-based Clicker micro-carrier boards and three Click expansion modules: a temperature sensor, a motion sensor, and a relay switch. Buyers can then choose from a catalog of more than 100 Click options ranging from sensors to stepper motors to wireless extensions. The Click modules click directly onto the MikroBus connectors found on the Creator board or the MikroBus sockets found on the Clicker carriers, which have ZigBee-like 6LoWPAN radios and AAA batteries. The Click adoption both follows -- and leads -- a trend among hacker projects opting for ready-made expansion systems for IoT sensors. SolidRun uses Click in its HummingBoard SBCs and new ClearFog networking SBC.

Other projects, such as Intel’s Edison, Amazon’s AWS IoT platform, and BeagleBoard.org, have aligned with Seeed’s catalog of Grove sensor boards. In fact, Seeed manufactures the BeagleBone Green, which features a Grove sensor interface and add-ons.

While many other boards offer Arduino interfaces to enable similar add-ons, alternatives like Grove and Click are gaining ground. This may be partially due to the uncertainty about the future of Arduino, due to the continuing rift between the two rival Arduino camps. However, it primarily reflects the convenience of one-stop shopping, guaranteed compatibility, and the greater focus on wireless and sensor modules rather than motor control.

The Creator Ci40 also demonstrates the trend toward hacker boards and IoT gateways sold with readymade cloud-based aggregation and control platforms. Like the Creator Ci20, the Ci40 ships with a limited subscription to Imagination’s FlowCloud, which streamlines device connections to the Internet, “enabling easy product registration and updates as well as access to partner-enabled services,” says Imagination. FlowCloud includes a centralized dashboard to monitor usage, as well as open source APIs.

Somewhat similar cloud-based IoT management platforms have appeared in products like Amazon’s AWS IoT, Mentor Graphics’ SysDK, and Wind River’s Wind River Helix Cloud.

With its MIPS architecture, the Creator Ci40 will have an uphill battle against ARM giants like the Raspberry Pi. Yet, Imagination has clued into many of the key components developers are looking for in an IoT-focused hacker board. We can expect to see more of the same by the time of the upcoming 2016 edition of our hacker SBC survey.

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