Are Embedded Systems Ready for Multi-Core?

By Craig Szydlowski, Tech Message Corp.

Having declared an end to the clock-speed race, Intel launched new dual-core processors last summer. This release reversed the company's legacy of processors with ever-increasing clock speed and power consumption. This architectural change brought positive and negative side effects. The upside is the end of power-hungry processors that negatively affect system cost, reliability, and board size—the key tenets of embedded-systems design. The downside is the need to modify software applications to keep two cores busy at the same time.

Power efficiency aside, the success of this new processor generation hinges on cost. "OEMs assess the total system impact including factors such as reliability, programming environment, and maintaining legacy software. In the embedded market, price is extremely important and these technologies must be cost effective," says Max Baron, Senior Editor and Principal Analyst of In-Stat's Microprocessor Report.

"Depending on the market segment and form factor, we see that about 20% to 40% will adopt a dual-core product this year in embedded applications," says Norbert Hauser.

Vice President of Marketing, Kontron AG. In the short term, a majority of embedded applications don't necessarily need multi-core-level performance. Yet Intel hopes that customers are attracted to new virtualization and management technologies, which can potentially lower overall system cost. Before OEMs adopt these technologies, they must figure out how to use them to create a competitive advantage.

Addressing the issue of cost, Joe Jensen, General Manager of Marketing and Platform Programs for Intel's Communications Infrastructure Group, states, "The whole industry is moving to multi-core…and eventually, they will become lower cost than single-chip solutions." Intel is banking on embedded developers finding ingenious ways to deploy its latest products—with multiple computing cores and complementary technologies—to deliver more value in areas like security, performance density, and manageability.

Security

"With many other vendors offering multi-core, Intel is running behind in the embedded market. But their product line is moving in the right direction," says Tom R. Halfhill, Senior Editor and Analyst of In-Stat's Microprocessor Report. Referring to Intel CEO Paul Otellini's pre-announcement of a low-power IA core at IDF 2006, he adds, "This would clearly be useful for embedded."

The Intel® multi-core technology adds value in the ability to dedicate a single core to run a complex set of security functions. "Security is going to be an integral value needed in anything that communicates and therefore can open the door to a security breach," Halfhill states. Multiple cores provide redundancy, which can offer failover support when a security breach occurs.

More robust security is required with the number of instances and the severity of security threats growing at an alarming pace (see the Figure). "The most damaging and fast-moving threats today are content-based. Content-based attacks do not require sustained connections in order to do damage. And they almost always spread using connections that are inherently trusted. Being able to detect a content-based threat effectively requires adequate processing power to support the security application," emphasizes Victoria Fodale, In-Stat Industry Analyst.

Performance Density

The performance-per-Watt advantages from Intel® multi-core processors is best seen in Computer-On-Module (COM) Express module designs. This small (95-x-110-mm), low-power form factor is deployed in test and measurement, medical, and machine imaging and gaming. Launched at Embedded World, the RadiSys CE945GM with dual-channel memory delivers up to 67% more performance over existing single-channel-memory COM Express solutions. "There is huge interest in dual-core boards and we expect adoption to be twice as fast as single-core COM Express boards," says Jennifer Zickel, RadiSys CE945GM Product Manager. "Customers either want dual-core and dual-channel memory for the highest performance or they choose scalable boards supporting both single- and dual-core processors with different price/performance points."

Management

Maximizing "uptime" and executing multiple tasks without slowing down are key requirements for retailers. After all, business can't stop. Point-of-sale (POS) system fixes or upgrades must be fast to maintain transaction throughput. With serviceability in mind, NCR deploys Intel Active Management Technology. This technology provides a dedicated communications channel for remote management and repair—even if the operating system is down or the workstation is turned off.

"Today, retailers need to run multiple applications simultaneously at the point of service, including critical store-operation functions and customer-centric applications that enhance the shopping experience," states Greg Egan, NCR Vice President for Assisted Service Solutions. To support such multi-tasking environments, NCR developed the RealPOS 80XRT based on Intel® Core™ 2 Duo processors. It enables new retail applications to execute simultaneously.

Ready for Multi-Core

Performance seekers like Radisys, NCR, and Kontron aren't only ready for the multi-core transition. They're already on the bandwagon. Today, some embedded systems use two processors per board, making dual core the logical next step. An example is medical imaging.

Embedded-systems designers require only single-core performance. Before jumping to multi-core, they may therefore need to see compelling benefits from new chipset features or system-enhancing technologies. This assumes, of course, that marketing isn't demanding the latest, greatest processor technology.