Embedded x86 Shares Grow from Slow Past

By Eric Heikkila, VDC Research Group

The x86 architecture has undergone a transformation in the embedded market from bit player to leading architecture. If you look back 10-15 years x86 was viewed very skeptically by most in the embedded industry and it was only adopted in a few niche application areas that were adopting what looked more like a hybrid of PC technology and embedded technology rather than traditional embedded technology. Embedded computer suppliers and users at the time viewed x86 as an architecture that was too closely tied to the commercial PC industry and did not have the extended lifecycles, ruggedization levels, or performance to fit adequately in embedded computers and applications. In the years since x86 has risen from this lowly position in the embedded market to become the most adopted CPU architecture in embedded computers and applications today.

Figure 1: This chart shows CPUs in the embedded applications segment, delineated by CPU architectures for 2009. (Courtesy VCD Research Group, Inc.)

The greatest advantage that x86 offers embedded system developers and the reason for x86’s recent success in the embedded market is the vast x86 ecosystem. There is a massive supply of developers familiar with x86 and an immense number of software development tools for x86 out there due to the ubiquity of x86 in PCs and servers. The availability of these resources is unparalleled by any other CPU architecture and is virtually impossible for embedded system developers and customers to ignore. This arms x86 with a very strong value proposition for embedded customers – an ability to positively impact ease of development, cost of development, and time-to-market as a result of its vast ecosystem, which in turn provides ease of implementation and the ability to ramp up a new project team quickly. The size of the x86 market also provides unparalleled stability – it is a given that x86 is not going to disappear any time soon.

Eric is the director for the Embedded Hardware & Systems at VDC Research Group. He holds a BS in Electrical Engineering with a minor in Economics from Bucknell University.