Multicore and Virtualization Help Legacy Form-Factor Boards

Older form-factor boards like PC-104 and VME are finding new life with Intel® x86 multicore architecture and virtualization technologies.

By John Blyler, Editor-in-Chief

Embedded Intel® Solutions (EIS) magazine recently talked with Troy Smith, director of the Intel® Emedded and Communiations Alliance,, and Ryan Parker, director of marketing for the Intel® Embedded & Communications Group, about trends in small-form-factor boards.

John Blyler: What are the trends, then? Smaller boards, small form factors, low-power processes like the Intel® Atom™ processor.

Troy Smith: Intel has been a stronger player in the motherboard space for many years. These motherboards ranged from the derivatives of PC motherboards like embedded ATX to bladed or slotted boards for industrial backplanes like Advanced TCA, CompactPCI, and even VME [see current issue of EIS magazine: “Preparing For Network-Centric Military Systems”]. We are starting to see several of our ECA members come out with smaller form-factor boards (e.g., COM Express, EPIC, and even smaller versions of very mature form factors like PC-104). Historically, though, many of these form factors haven’t had a strong Intel® architecture (IA) solution. [IA is the designation for Intel® x86 family of CPUs.] But now we have improved our scalability going from full, multi-hundred-Watt ATCA rack-mounted systems down to sub-hundred-millimeter-size boards. All are based on a common IA instruction set from top to bottom.

JB: I thought that VPX was the new VME?

Ryan Parker: Let me focus on VME, which still has a very large base of legacy users. We are seeing a lot of redesigns move from existing IBM/Freescale PowerPC boards into other architectures for VME support. By using mobile Intel® processors--especially those with multicore capabilities--users can gain performance boosts without having to upgrade their installed infrastructure base. Interestingly, the VME market was one in which we had intended to recommend that users move to CompactPCI or ATCA. Instead, we found that many users preferred to retrofit existing equipment back in with our processors.

The challenge is how to retrofit into a hardware-software environment that is not highly treaded. We’ve found that virtualization is a great tool in such cases, as customers can run their legacy code on one partition and then write new code in a general- purpose OS on another partition or core.

JB: Virtualization used to be another way of saying “emulation,” which meant that you suffered a system-level performance hit. Of course, a performance sacrifice might be acceptable if you decrease the form factor or power usage. Is that the case here?

RP: Thanks to Moore’s Law, if today something seems slow, then just wait 18 months and it will run much faster, off to the side. That’s another way of saying that, in the same thermal envelope, you’ll see nearly double the performance every 18 months.

We’ve been able to demonstrate that with past systems. It’s true that our earlier versions of virtualization hardware assist did have slower implementation. But we’ve made vast improvements both on the processor and input/output (I/O) side. By virtualizing the I/O, designers can actually peg an Ethernet port to a specific process on the embedded processor, thus bypassing all of the routing across the VMM. This results in a significant performance increase.

TS: I want to be careful too about the misrepresentation of current virtualization technology as emulation. That’s not what is really happening. You don’t take a performance hit purely from the operation of the OS, but more so from running most applications on the same platform. You do have to share some resources when using virtualization technology. But as Ryan points out, there have been some technology advancements on how we implemented virtualization that allow direct access to I/Os. In the past, highly I/O-intensive or real-time deterministic applications have caused serious bottlenecks. Our virtualization technology can alleviate these bottlenecks and thus increase performance.

Ryan Parker is the director of marketing for Intel Corp.’s Embedded & Communications Group. Recently, Parker has been responsible for developing and growing the Retail, Gaming, Medical, Government, Energy, and Third Party Board Vendor market segments.



Troy Smith is director of the Intel® Embedded and Communications Alliance (ECA), an ecosystem of hardware and software vendors.