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Industry Roundtable: Embedded Intel® Solutions

By Cameron Bird

Emerging from economic limbo, companies across the embedded- computing landscape are asking themselves: How low and how far can we go? Compelled to drive down costs and push performance forward, they’re finding ways to satisfy both demands. That’s due in large part to a new generation of x86 Intel® micro-architectures, which serve as foundations

This rings true in markets where customers are integrating high-end features into smaller-footprint products, such as medical displays, mobile ultrasounds, infotainment kiosks, and digital signage. New dual-core Intel® Atom™ processors are allowing manufacturers to parlay the rich graphical elements that were once exclusive to bulkier, pricier boards. “The ratio of processing performance to power consumption in these new Intel® devices is enabling features like dual-head video in a cost-effective package that fits well with these types of applications,” says Gary Harris, marketing manager of embedded computing at VersaLogic Corp. With dual-head video, a single computer runs multiple feeds to separate displays, allowing the user to switch seamlessly back and forth.

And the latest line of Intel Atom processors—the N450, D410, and D510—boast seven-year lifespans. This aspect gives the industrial sector more stability over the long haul. In designing board-level solutions for defense, aerospace, medical, robotics, and factory-automation applications, chipmakers continue to place a premium on extended product life, emphasizes Harris. As a corollary, customers in these markets require increasingly zippy central processing units (CPUs) that maintain their cool under continuous operation.

“Low power is often driven by the need for fanless sealed systems,” Harris explains. “Meanwhile, processing requirements are remaining high with customers demanding performance in the 1-GHz-plus range.” Workhorse operating systems also increasingly call for faster memory and storage (both rotating and Flash based). In Intel Atom processorbased boards, such as VersaLogic’s forthcoming EBX-based Viper single-board computer (slated for release this summer), for example, it’s becoming more common to find high-speed PCI Express video and Ethernet.

Through the not-so-distant future, integration stands to play an even larger role in Intel Atom processor-based designs. The unveiling of Intel’s new Moorestown systemon- a-chip (SoC), which will run in smartphones, netbooks, and tablets (see “Intel® Atom™ Processors Go Mobile,” page 10), hints that a slew of additional single-device-dedicated processors may be on the way. “I think we’ll be seeing a trend toward integrating more and more functions and also more processors for specific functions—for wireless communication, handheld, and mobile,” states Joseph Byrne, a senior analyst at the Linley Group. According to Frank Shen, product marketing director of American Portwell Technology, the rollout of function-specific Intel Atom processors also means “greater opportunities to convert non-Intel architecture- based applications to IA.”

Intel® Xeon® Processor: Warrior Processor

In the upper tier of performance, Intel’s recently launched Intel® Xeon® processors C5500/C3500 series (aka Jasper Forest) have “stirred up the industry,” says Nigel Forrester, marketing manager of embedded computing at Emerson Network Power. Emerson’s latest ACTA-7360 server blades, for instance, carry quad-core, 2.13-GHz Intel Xeon processors 5600 series. These sleek chips stand as major architectural upgrades compared to the last-generation Intel Xeon processors . They integrate on-board memory and non-uniform memory access (NUMA) as well as a revised I/O that replaces the cluttered front bus with Intel® Quick Path Interconnect (QPI). QPI is capable of zipping data to and from peripherals at up to 25.6 GBytes/s.

Intel’s decision to swap out the northbridge in favor of PCI Express and the Direct Media Interface will enable the company “to address a broader customer base,” observes Byrne. “They’ll keep their existing customers happy, but they can start going after designers that would have previously looked at Freescale or another embedded supplier with integrated offerings.”

Dense form factors, such as ATCA and AMC, represent major growth markets for Intel, says Jonathan Luse, director of marketing for low-power embedded products. At that level, notes Byrne, embedded-computing manufacturers are presented with an increasingly difficult challenge: how to lower power consumption in dense, mighty architectures. A single-core Intel Xeon processor, for example, enters in at 23 W. “If they get to half of that,” notes Byrne, “their opportunities will increase.”

Averting Obsolescence

Though worldwide semiconductor revenue is poised to bounce back this year (to the tune of $231 billion, according to IT research firm Gartner Inc.), Emerson’s Forrester points out that the lessons of the recession are still fresh on the minds of board-level designers and OEMs. Whole industries are reinforcing the necessity of getting to market faster. “This tends to lead to buying more of the solution rather than designing from scratch,” he notes. Standards-based small form factors are helping to streamline the process while enabling OEMs to retain their IP—software, I/O, or other hardware. “The option has always been open to the customer, but the economic situation has forced more companies to adopt standards,” emphasizes Forrester. “So, the barriers are coming down.”

He adds that the next great boon for the embedded community will be release 2 of COM Express from PICMG, which is currently under development. That specification is set to introduce new pinout capabilities and form factors that will enable lower power and higher performance. The projected result: more deeply embedded applications for automation, industrial computing, retail markets, medicine, and others. Some clinical medical systems, for instance, are now in their second or third generation of standards-based computer-onmodules (COMs).

In the meantime, embedded designers are starting to future-proof their technologies. For example, Emerson’s nextgeneration AdvantedTCA platform, called Centellis 4440, allows OEMs to simply swap out blades when new ones come to market without replacing the shelf infrastructure. This capability enables core products to remain open to the inevitability of faster, more efficient advancements. “Historically, a lot of embedded designs were built to be static,” says Intel’s Luse. “Once they were deployed, they really weren’t upgraded or changed until they were replaced. Now, a lot of devices are built with upgradability in mind. It could be swapping out a processor for a new generation or it could be pushing new applications into a device itself to make the application upgraded. Seeing a dynamic platform is a pretty exciting change.”

Cameron Bird is editor of Extension Media’s EECatalog. com. He has written about technology for Wired magazine, daily news for the Orange County Register and entertainment for Newsday.