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Technology Enhancements for Medical and Retail

By Nigel Forrester, Emerson Network Power

In January 2010, the embedded industry was buzzing about Intel’s launch of its Intel® Core® i3, Core® i5, and Core® i7 processors. This wasn’t a surprise, as 12 of the 27 new processors announced specifically targeted embedded applications. The Intel Core i7 processor, for example, is expected to significantly improve the power/performance ratio over earlier processors. As a result, users will benefit from either more processing performance per watt or lower power consumption per unit of processing performance. These advantages bode well for embedded-computing users, as typical applications are often constrained by power consumption, physical dimensions, and heat dissipation.

In a retail environment, for instance, a point-of-sale system based on an Emerson Network Power MicroATX motherboard— which is powered by the Intel Core i7 mobile processor—can reduce the operational power requirement by up to 70%. At the same time, it will provide up to double the amount of raw processing performance as previous generations of processors.

That’s a huge savings for both the retailer’s bottom line and the global climate. Another key attribute for embedded applications is that Intel offers a minimum seven-year life cycle on their embedded roadmaps. This timing enables OEMs to plan long term and drive current technology into the market for many years without changes.

High performance and long-life support also are critical for medical device applications—especially those that are data and graphics intensive. For most diagnostic imaging equipment, the platform’s deconstruction and reconstruction element requires massive compute power to manipulate the sheer volume of data being captured. That data comes from slices in computer tomography (CT) or sound compression from ultrasound, which must be reconstructed into useful elements for the radiologists. The data is then projected as picture-archiving-and-communication- system (PACS) -level images for the radiologist and technicians to read and manipulate further on a high-definition display.

At this stage, high performance becomes more critical in direct correlation with the discernment of the soft tissue and organs at almost a molecular level. Add to this that slices in CT have gone from 16 to a mind-boggling 256 or more today. Clearly, a tremendous amount of information is being deconstructed and reconstructed in real time for high-end imaging.

Medical-equipment makers have to make large investments in certification and safety testing. Generally, they expect to be able to sell devices for 10 years to recoup their investment. Because these platforms must stay static for agency and safety certifications worldwide, embedded products are the only sensible starting basis for such platforms. During the life cycle of the product, it’s also imperative that the vendor be able to provide post-sales support and services across the globe.

The Intel Core i7 and Core i5 processors use 32-nm manufacturing- process technology to provide medical-equipment makers with significant increases in performance and energy efficiency. The excellent graphics, memory, and I/O bandwidth—together with remote-management capabilities and reliability—enable embedded boards based on these processors to meet the requirements of a broad range of medical applications.

Yet the move from a 45- to 32-nm fabrication process doesn’t just impact performance and power consumption. Combined with the architectural changes, Intel has now been able to transform what was previously a three-chip solution into a two-chip solution. The Intel Core i7 processor integrates the memory controller and PCI Express® interconnects onto the processor. As a result, there’s no need for a traditional Northbridge chip. This aspect frees up valuable printed-circuit-board (PCB) space to allow additional functionality, such as PCI Express Mini Card slots and additional USB connectors, to be placed on the board. This kind of functional density and flexibility is highly valued by the embedded-computing community, as it allows more capability to be integrated onto a single board and thus minimizes the size and cost of the solution.

But that’s not all. The Intel Core i7 processor also offers support for error-correcting (ECC) memory. Error checking and correction aren’t usually important in the consumer computing environment. But embedded applications require high levels of reliability. As a result, the ability to offer vastly improved data integrity through ECC memory is desirable and in some cases mandatory.

The Intel Core i7 processor also offers the Intel® Turbo Boost Technology, which can automatically increase the speed of an individual processor or the graphics core while operating within the device thermal limits. This feature is ideal for many sophisticated embedded applications that place high demands on individual processing elements—especially as no changes are required at the application or operating-system level. Examples include imaging, pattern recognition, and media processing.

To take advantage of the Intel Core i7 processor’s enhanced graphics and processing throughput, Emerson’s MATXMCORE- 411-B embedded motherboard supports dual independent displays. In addition, it has VGA/LVDS and HDMI interfaces for connection to the widest possible range of displays. Similarly, the COMX-CORE series computer-on-modules (COMs) have dual graphics outputs supporting both LCD and CRT displays.

Going back to the medical example, the COMX-CORE modules are very well suited for clinical applications ranging from clinical displays to mobile ultrasound platforms. The flexible COM Express standard provides many advantages. For example, these platforms are able to provide interchangeable and scalable modules to enable a range of instruments to be supplied based on the same core technology. Another key factor is the marriage of off-the-shelf COM technology with a proprietary carrier platform, which provides the right patient interfaces and safety certifications. At the same time, this approach allows a standards- based solution to be supplied over long periods.

The ratio of processing performance to power consumption in these new Intel devices is beginning to enable features like multiple video outputs with the capability for 3D and 4D processing. Such features are becoming available in a cost-effective package that fits well with these types of applications.

Finally, the new Intel Core i5 and i7 processors include the following collection of capabilities (known as Intel® vPro™ technology):

  • Intel® Virtualization Technology (Intel® VT)
  • Intel® Active Management Technology (Intel® AMT)
  • Intel® Trusted Execution Technology (Intel® TXT)

These technologies combine to deliver outstanding hardware support for vital security and management functions. The resulting platforms are reliable, secure, and cost effective for use in medical or retail environments.

The Intel® VT hardware enhancements reduce software overhead by moving much of the burden of virtualization onto the hardware. As a result, multiple operating systems (OSs) and applications can be run as independent virtual machines on the same physical hardware. In a medical example, this would allow a realtime scanning application running on a real-time OS like Wind River’s VxWorks and a front-end graphical user interface (GUI) running on Microsoft Windows Embedded Standard 7 on the same physical hardware. Such a solution would be cost effective.

Medical institutions are dealing with an increasingly complex plethora of networked embedded devices in the clinical environment. The remote-management capabilities provided by Intel AMT can help them contain rising support costs by querying, fixing, and protecting networked embedded devices even when they’re powered off, not responding, or have software issues. Intel AMT works completely “out of band” from the application or operating system. As a result, it’s not affected by OS crashes or program bugs.

For their part, Intel vPro technology-enabled boards provide hardware-based mechanisms that help to protect against softwarebased attacks. They also protect data confidentiality and integrity. For example, Intel® TXT can be used to protect patient data on medical handheld devices. Ultimately, Intel vPro technology makes it easier to secure, maintain, and manage medical equipment.

Security, manageability, and data and application integrity are equally vital in many other application areas including retail, industrial automation, transportation, and test and measurement. Emerson’s latest MicroATX motherboard, COM Express modules, 3U CompactPCI, and 6U VME boards leverage Intel vPro technology to help OEMs build more secure connected solutions.

Clearly, the launch of the Intel Core i7 processor family has made a significant impact on the functionality and future for embedded-computing applications within multiple industries including retail and medical. Many of these new features are specifically designed to aid embedded applications. It will be interesting to see how innovatively the embedded-computing ecosystem deploys them over the next few years.

As a market development manager with the Embedded Computing business of Embedded Network Power, Nigel Forrester focuses on the digital-signage, intelligent-kiosk, industrial-automation, energy, and test-equipment markets. Forrester’s entire 20-plus-year career has been within the electronics industry sector. A published author and speaker, he is particularly interested in the applications and uses of embedded-computing building blocks. Forrester has a BS (Hons.) in computer science and statistics from Reading University.