Market Watch (Spring 2005)

By Cheryl Ajluni

Embedding a computer into everyday items is nothing new. Today, everything from automobiles, high-definition televisions (HDTV), multimedia centers, mobile devices, and yes, even toasters, qualify as embedded systems. In fact, embedded computers (or embedded systems) now make up more than 90% of the world’s manufactured processors. With an increasing number of devices using embedded processors, RAM, disk drives, and networks, ever intense focus is turning towards powering next-generation embedded systems.

Hoping to further address this need, while increasing the performance and responsiveness of embedded applications, Intel Corporation (Santa Clara, CA) has signaled a new trend in the processor market - portable computers with two or more brains. In preparation of this shift to multi-core computing platforms, Intel is working to develop multi-core technology. Recently the company announced the completion of an initial production run of its dual-core processors.

Work on this project began three years ago when the company first introduced Hyper-Threading technology. This technology allows a processor to present itself as two logical processors. Now, Hyper-Threading technology is being extended to form the basis of Intel’s multi-core processors.

Intel’s Desktop Platforms Group plans to deliver two separate dual-core products and dual-core-enabled chipsets for its Intel® Pentium® processor-class families in the second quarter of 2005. One of these products is the Intel® Pentium®  4 Processor Extreme Edition. Featuring embedded Hyper-Threading technology, it will provide users the ability to process four software “threads” simultaneously. The Pentium 4 Processor Extreme Edition will also be combined with the new Intel® 955X Express, that includes features such as Intel High Definition Audio, PCI-Express and faster dual-channel DDR-2 memory.

These dual- and multi-core products are created by integrating two or more full CPU cores within a single processor. When combined Intel’s Hyper-Threading technology, the result is the ability to simultaneously manage system activities by more efficiently using resources that might otherwise sit idle.

The emerging trend toward multi-core computing platforms has huge implications for PC computing and next-generation multimedia and entertainment-based devices. Such applications require high computing power for audio, video, digital design, and gaming activities. Multi-core computing platforms offer a viable and efficient means of powering these activities. Industry analyst firm Gartner Inc. (Stamford, CT) cautions that while new dual-core processors and multi-core platforms will offer performance benefits for specialized users, it means a major transition for enterprises and should be deployed carefully.

According to Gartner, the dual-core clock speeds will likely be lower than those of the fastest Intel® Pentium® 4 processor-based platforms on the market. However, two slower cores can do more work than one core with a faster clock speed. They can also reduce heat production as compared to an equivalent single-core device, resulting in a quieter and more reliable machine. The primary beneficiaries of the trend toward adoption of dual-core processors will be users of design automation, simulation, and image editing and publishing products.

Given this assessment, Gartner recommends that enterprise IT managers consider the dual-core Intel® 945 and 955X chipset-based platform for early deployment to workstation users only in situations where the resulting productivity increase promises a meaningful business benefit. At the same time, enterprise managers should also prepare for full-scale deployment in the first quarter of 2006.

Intel currently has more than 10 multi-core-related projects underway. The company’s initial two sets of dual-core processors and corresponding dual-core-enabled chipsets will begin shipping in the second quarter of 2005. Computer manufacturer Dell Inc. (Round Rock, TX) plans to offer Intel’s dual-core processor technology on its high-end systems for the extreme gaming, consumer and workstation markets. With such an aggressive plan in place, the trend toward multi-core platform technology, supported by Intel’s recent announcements, is sure to impact embedded system design for years to come.

Cheryl Ajluni is the owner of Custom Media Solutions, specializing in technology-based content for publications and tradeshows. She has over 10 years experience covering the high-tech industry for such publications as Electronic Design and Embedded Systems Development and served as Editor in Chief of Wireless Systems Design. She has also worked in various engineering roles, holds a patent for the development of a solar cell detection system, and has a Bachelor of Science degree in physics and mathematics from the University of California, Davis.