Power-Consumption, Performance, and Footprint Demands Propel Intel® Architecture into New Areas

By Ann Steffora Mutschler

Embedded technology has already infused intelligence into devices that are reshaping society and transforming the way we live, work, and play. While it took 30 years to connect the first five billion devices with embedded technology, Intel Corp. (www.intel.com) believes it will only take six years to take that number to 15 billion. The embedded Intel® architecture aims to give developers the ability to design smarter, cooler, faster, and more energy-efficient products. One such product area is virtualization—an application space that has garnered significant interest for its ability to leverage IT efficiency and power savings, among other benefits.

In one proof of concept based on Intel® technology, Intel® Embedded and Communications Alliance member American Portwell Technology Inc. (www.portwell.com) completed a wireless-body-area-network (WBAN) project with Lynux- Works Inc. (www.lynuxworks.com). This fully virtualized platform implements the Intel® Core™2 Duo processor in an off-the-shelf, Mini-ITX-form-factor motherboard, explains Cliff Moon, VP of sales and marketing at Portwell. The proofof- concept computing platform promises to make multiple biomedical monitoring, display, and communication functions possible. It integrates LynxSecure, LynuxWorks’ separation kernel, which contains a built-in embedded hypervisor and virtualization technology to allow guest operating systems (OSs) and their applications to run on top of LynxSecure. In effect, it allows multiple dissimilar OSs to share a single physical hardware platform.

Virtualization technology allows for significant cost savings through hardware consolidation. At the same time, it retains the ability to leverage the ecosystem of applications that belong to different OS domains into a single system. To achieve virtualization, LynxSecure uses a hypervisor to create a virtualization layer that maps physical system resources to each guest OS. Every guest OS is assigned certain dedicated resources, such as memory, CPU time, and I/O peripherals. “Co-operative virtualization” (para-virtualization) provides superior performance for the guest OSs like Linux, LynxOSSE, and LynxOS-178. Full virtualization allows unmodified OSs like Windows to run next to para-virtualized ones.

LynxSecure also takes advantage of Intel® Virtualization Technology (Intel® VT), including Vtx and Vtd hardware-assist virtualization technologies, resulting in one of the most advanced virtualized embedded platforms available today. For medical, military, and aerospace applications—along with other information-sensitive environments—LynxSecure is a true separation kernel and a great starting point, Moon notes. Further, Intel VT allows critical biometric-monitoring functions and OSs to run in separate protected, virtualized execution environments. With virtualization, data from multiple specialized wireless sensors can be collected by a single WBAN device. At the same time, Bluetooth networking executes from a virtualized secure partition to provide isolation from other system software. In doing so, it helps to ensure the platform’s reliability.

Figure: The Emerson Network Power ATCA-7360 board includes two quad-core Intel® Xeon® processors L5518.

Power Helps Intel Win Designs

According to Jeff Acampora, VP of sales and marketing for hardware and software debugging supplier Arium, “Intel is winning some designs with just the sheer power of the processor. It’s pretty amazing. It’s putting a lot of MIPS down into an embedded device and that’s very attractive. We’re seeing design wins that were previous-generation PowerPC and Intel is taking some of those designs away for two reasons. One is processing power. Second, with the Intel® Atom™ processor, Intel has some vertical market segments that they are addressing. One of them is video.” However, Acampora points out that the power consumption is still high compared to other architectures— namely the ARM. As a result, Intel still has a way to go before it can get into highly mobile devices.

While not playing in every market segment, the Intel architecture is applicable to an ever-widening audience. But what is it that makes Intel technology ideally suited for embedded applications? Portwell’s Moon believes that it comes down to the company’s commitment to embedded computing. “Intel, by and large, started as a processor company. The way they released chipsets was to enable their processor technology— not to sell chipsets, because chipsets sell for $15 to $20 per set whereas they charge as much as $500 for a high-end Intel® Xeon® processor. Having said that, I think Intel is the only semiconductor company that I’m aware of that is not only truly committed when it comes to embedded computing but they back that up by providing a very robust and comprehensive set of tools—whether it is a validation or design tool. And they recently announced a pretty comprehensive tool to help the embedded market called Embedded Design Center (EDC; http://edc.intel.com), which is an online resource for Intel’s newest embedded processors and chipsets including confidential documentation, training, online support, and step-by-step guidance.”

For the communications and network segment, Rob Pettigrew, director of marketing for the networking and communications segment at Emerson Network Power, says that what makes the Intel architecture the best fit is price performance and power consumption. “The Intel architecture is—especially on the price/performance side—really doing well. Until the advent of Advanced TCA, other architectures, such as PowerPC, had a really big power-consumption advantage and you didn’t really see a lot of Intel architecture in the embedded space—mostly because the chips were too hot. Two things have happened. The ATC form factor was conceived to allow for the deployment of hotter parts—physically bigger/ more power. Also, the Intel parts have come a long way in optimizing performance in a given power envelope, making them much more appropriate to a truly embedded world,” he explains.

The Optimization Challenge

Fundamental challenges with embedded design are optimizing price/performance and power consumption. Pettigrew notes that Emerson’s customers are very sensitive to those three dimensions. “Generally, they want to optimize performance but are constrained by two things. Power consumption is a big one for three reasons. It’s a challenge to deliver enough current to power these systems. It’s a challenge to dissipate that much heat and cool the boards. It’s also a challenge to cool the buildings that the equipment is in. Finally, it is a challenge to pay for it all.”

Pettigrew adds, “Energy efficiency is becoming increasingly important. It’s something we have to pay attention to. It’s no longer good enough just to maximize one of those dimensions. In the past, we would have focused on maximizing performance without focusing as much on the other dimensions: price, performance, and power consumption. They are all three becoming important. I wouldn’t say as important. Performance still trumps the other two, but less so than it has in the past.”

According to Pettigrew, “The bottom line is that the performance of these parts is increasing so quickly with not just multicore technology that is showing up on the chips, but things like integrated memory controllers—which in the telecommunications world, really helps improve performance and bandwidth. All of these things are driving big performance improvements from one generation to the next.” As an example, Pettigrew points to Emerson’s recent product announcement of its AdvancedTCA board based on the quad-core Intel Xeon processor 5500 series (codenamed Nahalem).

The Emerson Network Power ATCA-7360 is an Intel architecture server blade that’s meant to deliver a combination of performance and flexibility to help drive the successful implementation of next-generation telecommunications networks and communication infrastructures (see the Figure). It builds on the AdvancedTCA standard to provide the right product at the right time to meet the needs of communication industries. With two quad-core Intel Xeon processors L5518, the ATCA-7360 processor blade promises to allow best-in-class compute performance in an ATCA form factor. The PICMG 3.1-compliant fabric interface provides 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10-Gbps) capability for applications requiring higher network throughput in the backplane. Multiple network and storage I/O interfaces allow integration into different network infrastructures, such as telecommunications central offices and network data centers. Main memory configuration and mass-storage options can be flexibly configured, providing a perfect fit for application needs. In addition, RAID 0 and 1 can be enabled when connecting to external disks.

On the software side of things, Arium’s Acampora points out that embedded developers who are using Linux on their target and may be developing either kernel modules or applications commonly encounter call downs into the kernel and discover a bug. By using Arium’s SourcePoint with Linux-OS-aware features, developers gain the advantage of set breakpoints in the kernel while they’re debugging kernel modules or applications. They can stop in the kernel and look at the trace execution to find the problem.

Software complexity in general is the biggest challenge overall, Acampora notes. Although Linux has grown in popularity as the embedded real-time operating system (RTOS) of choice, it is very complex. “When you start throwing different specific applications of code and specific hardware applications and you start tying that all together, it becomes very complicated. And the amount of visibility that developers have to their code and to what’s happening either on their segment of the system or another subsystem of what they are trying to develop is a big challenge. There is very little visibility in terms of seeing what the code is doing and trying to track down where it is not working properly.”

Finally, on top of the wish list for Portwell’s Moon is the ability for Intel architecture to do graphics. “That’s one of the niche areas where companies like Via with the S3 core and AMD with ATI technology can easily get additional design wins from some markets like digital signage, gaming, and even some patient monitoring in the medical field. It forces our customers to either go away from Intel or add discrete graphics.”

Ann Steffora Mutschler is Executive Editor of Extension Media’s EECatalog Resource Catalogs, and is also a Contributing Editor to Chip Design Magazine’s System-Level Design and Low- Power Design Communities.