Originally Published: Thursday, 22 March 2001 Author: Brian Richardson
Published to: enhance_articles_hardware/Hardware Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux & the MachZ

Brian Richardson profiles the MachZ, a tiny little "PC on a chip" designed for embedded Linux solutions.

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There were a lot of interesting things at Linux World in New York. Talking robots, stuffed penguins, free t-shirts, eight dollar martinis at the hotel bar. But one of the more interesting things at the show was Slackware 7.1 running on a 128 MHz computer the size of a Penguin Mints container. The computer was all in one tiny chip, the MachZ from ZF Linux Devices.

The MachZ is an interesting component. All of the functions performed by today's desktop computer, minus display and storage, are contained in a single chip.

  • 128 MHz 32-bit x86 CPU (486 compatible)

  • Supports up to 256MB RAM

  • PC/AT compatible architecture

  • PCI, ISA & USB bus controllers

  • Floppy Disk Controller

  • EIDE Disk Controller

  • Two Serial Ports

  • One Parallel Port

  • 'FailSafe Boot ROM' for crash recovery

  • Hardware WatchDog Timer

While the MachZ is no computing powerhouse, it is well suited for embedded computing. Most desktop applications spend lots of cycles on graphics, which is not a factor in the average embedded application.

This type of device helps the embedded market in general, and is great for the Linux world. Since the MachZ is a low-cost device, it works well with the free software model to create inexpensive computing devices. The MachZ has low-power consumption, so it works well in small enclosures (less than 2 Watts power consumption, it requires no heat sink or fan for cooling). The MachZ is based on the familiar x86 architecture, so existing software and design principles can be applied for rapid prototyping.

The folks at ZF Linux Devices are no stranger to the embedded market. David Feldman, the founder & CEO, developed several industry standards for single-board computing. This helped the development of the MachZ, which uses a single chip to perform all of the computer's major functions.

This is the part of the article where the reader says, "Gee that's neat, but what does this do for my personal Linux use?". The answer from Chris Gill, Vice President of Business Development and Marketing, is that designs using the MachZ are accessible to anybody. The ZF Linux Devices web page offers reference designs and programming information for free download. This allows access to several functional board designs, each with a different application.

Embedded computing isn't just for big companies. Embedded Linux Journal recently held a contest where readers could win a ZFLinux development board by entering embedded concept designs. The winners ranged from MP3 players and network storage devices to weather stations and a hamster training center (trust me, don't ask). Products like the MZ104 development board allow any individual to rapid-prototype an embedded device.

The software required for project development comes with the MachZ. A BIOS for the chip is downloadable from the website. The BlueCat Linux development kit from LynuxWorks is also included, allowing an embedded Linux to be built for the MachZ. The MachZ does not require a proprietary operating system: any x86 OS will run on the processor (Linux, DOS, Windows, RTOS, etc.). While BlueCat is specific to the embedded market, any Linux will work.

The MachZ is a low-cost processor, allowing Linux and standard PC components to produce embedded computers. It will be interesting to see what the market and the community build using this product.

Brian Richardson wonders exactly how he can justify building an embedded MP3 player for his van, since he hasn't bothered to spend money fixing its myriad of automotive ailments. Perhaps he'll just stick with the 8-track ...

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