Easing System Creation With Embedded Hardware Solutions And Standards

Internal decision is still buy or build, but the number of options has grown.

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By Cheryl Ajluni

System creation is today an ultra-complex task. On one hand, developers are confronted with consumer demands for ever more functionality, better performance and increased power efficiency at a lower cost. On the other hand, they face stringent time-to-market requirements and changing standards, coupled with the need to accommodate a range of requirements pertaining to different applications.

Whether to develop a system from scratch or just purchase a board or module on which they can add their “secret sauce” for differentiation is yet another critical challenge they face. Thanks to a slew of recent developments centered on new processor options and standards-based solutions in the embedded hardware space—many of which came to light at the recent Mobile World Congress 2009 in Barcelona—developers may now have a way to lessen the burden of system design.

Exploring New Processor Options

Increasingly, developers are opting to use boards and modules as a means of quickly and efficiently creating systems. One reason for this trend is a host of new processor options designed to offer better performance and address power issues on multiple fronts, such as extending battery life or delivering increased energy efficiency in a smaller, more compact design. By doing so, they are opening the door to new technology markets and applications, which previously may have been off limits. The x86 architecture, for example, is expanding its coverage in the mobile space, while multicore x86-based solutions are moving into the market once solely occupied by power-efficient PowerPC platforms.

Intel’s Atom processor was introduced last year and has its sights set on the simple, affordable netbook and nettop market. Manufactured on the company’s hafnium-infused, 45nm high-k silicon technology, the Atom processor packs 47 million transistors on a single chip measuring less than 26mm, making it the company’s smallest and lowest-power processor. Intel also recently announced the Core i7 family of processors, manufacturing using 45nm high-k process technology based on the new Nehalem microarchitecture (see Figure 1). Due to the module nature of Nehalem, these processors are said to be able to be configured such that they consume less than 10 watts of power. Increased power efficiency stems from the microarchitecture’s ability to boost performance on demand and maximize data throughput.


Figure 1. Intel’s Nehalem module.

Another company providing new processor options for the developer is ARM with its Sparrow and Cortex-M0 processors. Sparrow is a low-cost processor for the netbook and low-power computer market (See Figure 2). Built on the Cortex A9 CPU architecture, it supports multicore configurations for enhanced performance while still consuming significantly less electricity than low power chips from competitors. In contrast, the Cortex-M0 processor is ARM’s smallest, lowest power and most energy-efficient processor. It consumes as little as 0.085 milliwatts in an area of under 12K gates when using the ARM 180ULL (Ultra Low Leakage) physical IP. Such low power, coupled with its small gate count and code footprint enables MCU developers to achieve 32-bit performance at an 8-bit price point.


Figure 2. The ARM Sparrow multicore CPU for netbooks.

On the Standards Front

With new processors on the horizon, openness in terms of standards will be critical to allowing the industry to be transformed by their innovations. Entrenched standards like CompactPCI, EPIC, PC/104, and VME will continue to play a crucial role in the industry due to their ability to meet the needs of a wide range of applications. More and more though, newer standards (e.g., Advanced TCA (ATCA), MicroTCA, PCI Express and VPX) are emerging to meet the requirements of next-generation “carrier-grade” communications equipment and embedded computing systems.

The ATCA specification, for example, incorporates the latest trends in high-speed interconnect technologies, next-generation processors and improved reliability, availability and serviceability (RAS). VPX and the embedded computing systems based on it, reflect the growing significance of high-speed serial switched fabric interconnects such as PCI Express, RapidIO, Infiniband, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Because these technologies offer significantly greater capability with higher bandwidth, throughput and performance, they will increasingly replace traditional parallel communications bus architectures for local communications. VPX also provides existing VMEBus users with access to switched fabrics that support the implementation of multiprocessing systems requiring the fastest possible communications between multiple processors.

Perhaps the standard most often in the news these days is ATCA. According to the VDC Research Group, 85 percent of Tier 1 network equipment vendors will implement ATCA by the end of next year. Evidence of this fact abounds with company announcements coming at a furious pace. Emerson Network Power, for example, recently announced a 10G ATCA platform core, while Radisys and Enea announced the creation of a new product category altogether for the ATCA space. The first solution in this category, Enea System Manager, is a platform management solution that provides configuration, monitoring, control and platform software upgrade for the entire ATCA system. It is designed to give TEMs an out-of-the-box level of integration with the RadiSys Promentum ATCA 10G platform.

Kontron is another company adding its voice to the standards party by demonstrating a streaming video “read/write” benchmark with Astute Networks that was intended to help network equipment vendors interested in content delivery solutions using ATCA. Kontron also introduced the OM6120 MicroTCA platform, featuring support for quad-play and other high bandwidth applications. With its small form factor and power savings, MicroTCA will likely become increasingly more desirable as a deployment target.

While the complexity of system design undoubtedly will continue to mount, recent developments in processor options and standards-based solutions now promise to help ease this burden. Such offerings will breathe life into a whole new generation of applications, and also ensure that the systems going into those applications are turned out faster and more efficiently then ever before.