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issue: September 2005 APPLIANCE Magazine

Appliance Engineer - Electronics Report
Ethernet Controller for Connected Appliances

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Microchip Technology Inc. has developed an Ethernet controller small and flexible enough to meet the design needs of today’s advanced connected appliances.

According to Microchip (Chandler, AZ, U.S.), its ENC28J60 is the world’s first low-pin, stand-alone Ethernet controller that allows designers to create network- and Internet-connected embedded applications with minimized board space, cost, and complexity. While embedded designers are typically forced to use complex, 80-pin packages , the new controller offers a small, 28-pin solution.

“Existing market alternatives are offered with the complexity of large-footprint, expensive Ethernet controllers that are tailored for personal-computing systems with bus interfaces including ISA or PCI that require greater than 16 to 20 pins to interface to the host microcontroller,” explains Nate Smith, product marketing manager. “In contrast, the ENC28J60 Ethernet controller employs the industry-standard SPITM serial interface, which only requires four lines to interface to a host microcontroller. Appliance engineers can take comfort in knowing that they can design with an industry-standard SPI™ serial interface rather than having to become educated on yet another foreign interface only adding to the complexity of the designing process.”

And with the flexibility to interface to any host MCU with an SPI interface, Mr. Smith says the controller also gives appliance engineers the benefit of quicker time to market.

Achieving flexibility in a small package, however, wasn’t an easy task. Mr. Smith explains that this meant finding a way for the Medium Access Control (MAC) and Physical Layer Device (PHY) to effectively communicate and interface over the SPI interface. “The MAC is fairly simple to integrate given it is purely digital,” he says. “The PHY, on the other hand, is complex with analog circuitry and is much more difficult. To overcome this challenge, Microchip looked to an industry-leading IP provider and sourced the PHY from them. This analog PHY portion was then integrated in a seamless manner with the rest of the blocks on the chip.”

The controller is a first for Microchip, but the company believes the device will be of great use to many industries looking to the future. “The market for remote communication with embedded applications is showing signs of significant growth,” Mr. Smith says. “Microchip’s desire was to provide a one-stop shop for customers that use our microcontrollers in their designs and require remote access. Given that, each application that requires remote communication will have a microcontroller interfacing to an Ethernet controller.”

Possible embedded applications for the ENC28J80 include Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone adapters; inventory management of vending machines and hotel mini bars; remote diagnostics/alerts of appliances and factory machines; security applications; and remote sensing of HVAC and lighting systems.

Mr. Smith believes that the appliance industry in particular can benefit from using a simple, cost-effective Ethernet controller. “Having the ability to remotely monitor and diagnose appliances can save the service industry time and money,” he notes. “Whether the application is inventory control for vending machines or servicing warranties or valued equipment, remote management and control provides an effective technological solution.”


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