Bringing Intel XScale® technology into the industrial PC/104 market

By Glen Middleton, Managing Director, Eurotech

Intel XScale® technology has been heavily featured in the electronics and consumer products press over the last 2 years. It is still a new and exciting microprocessor architecture targeted to products in the low power, wireless application space. The technical virtues have real benefits in a wider range of “embedded” applications outside the high volume consumer product market. Just to put this technology in perspective, despite the coverage given to the Intel® Pentium processor-based architecture, more than 98 percent of all microprocessors that are used in “embedded” products, are not PCs. The x86 compatible embedded PC has achieved huge growth over the last 15 years, however, this growth is dwarfed by that achieved by devices now being incorporated into mobile phones and pocket pc. The market for high specification phones and multimedia, wireless pocket pcs is now being driven by massive global demand, with the result that major technology vendors such as Intel, Motorola, AMD, Microsoft, Palm and Symbian are all fighting for a major slice of the business. The performance of the embedded microprocessors incorporated into these handheld/wireless devices rivals that of the 486 and 586 class of PCs of just a few years ago, but with the added benefit of extremely low power consumption.


Arcom’s VIPER and MERCURY XScale based PC/104 boards

Intel first moved into this technology space with the introduction of the StrongARM processor, a product designed and created using technology licensed from Advanced RISC Machines (ARM) based in Cambridge, England. This product has been incredibly successful and formed the basis of many handheld and industrial products. The successor to the StrongARM processor is the Intel® PXA255 processor. The Intel XScale microarchitecture core has now been incorporated into a large family of embedded processors targeted at a range of growing markets from pocket pcs to residential communication gateways. Intel XScale technology is a 32-bit RISC (reduced instruction set computer) micro-architecture, which is binary compatible with other ARM processors. XScale-based RISC devices are implemented with fewer transistors, directly reducing the die size and the power to operate the chip. The PXA255 processor for example, operates up to 400MHz and includes a memory controller, card slot interface, flat panel display controller, serial ports, USB client, and digital I/O - all this with a typical power consumption of 400mW. This is the device used in market leading pocket pcs such as high-end HP iPAQs and the Toshiba E750. Although targeted at pocket pcs, the level of processing performance offered by this device is more than adequate for a huge range of industrial control, telemetry and telematics applications. Furthermore, the benefits of very low power consumption, a broad selection of integrated peripherals and wide support from the leading embedded operating system vendors makes it a very attractive option for industrial and OEM products.

The industrial PC/104 board standard was created as an industrial embedded board format based on the PC-AT expansion bus signals (ISAbus) and therefore inherently associated with the x86 PC architecture. This form factor allows multiple boards to be connected in a vertical stack using reliable pin and socket connectors. The PC/104 bus standard has reached a huge audience within the embedded market because of the advantages of size, cost and simplicity, as well as the massive support from a worldwide arena of vendors. Given the growing demand for rugged, fanless systems, often operating over a wide temperature range in non-ventilated enclosures, Arcom has extended the horizons of the PC/104 bus by offering boards powered by Intel XScale-based microprocessors. By careful design, the power budget advantages of XScale technology have been maintained along with the ability to shut down activity on the board peripherals and the PC/104 bus interface. The boards have also been designed using components with full industrial temperature specifications, eliminating the need for ventilation or forced cooling in compact enclosures. Arcom now offers PC/104 boards powered by the 400MHz Intel PXA255 processors, suited to display and MMI applications, and the 533MHz Intel® IXP425 Network Processor for secure embedded communications. Both boards have a good selection of on board peripheral features as well as full support for many of the leading embedded operating systems such as Windows CE .NET, embedded Linux, VxWorks, RT-Linux and eCOS.

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