Medical OEMs Can Upgrade to the Latest Chip Technology while Protecting Legacy Investments

Reap the graphical power of second-generation Intel Core i7 processors through a simple, economical upgrade.

By Colin McCracken, American Portwell Technology Inc.

The demands for medical imaging systems remain consistent. Solutions must contain high-performance, yet power-efficient processors with graphics capabilities that allow medical professionals to correctly and efficiently view and interpret scan results. To provide these solutions, medical original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) need to deliver high-end processing. They also must meet the medical industrys requirements for long-term supply, revision control, notification of changes, and commitment to quality standards like ISO 13485. Implementing such high-end processing can require an investment in new form factors. Fortunately, viable alternatives exist.

A Journey with Two Paths
Upgrade: In the current economy, medical OEMs are operating under constrained resources. Often, a single engineer is responsible for new designs and upgrades in addition to sustaining products that are already in production. Reuse is therefore key. Any opportunity to upgrade to the latest central processing unit (CPU) without starting over on all other system aspects is a preferred choice. After all, it can speed software development for new features while minimizing validation and FDA certification re-filings.

PICMG: Medical OEMs that have either a brand new product or buy only at the system or chassis level can use a complete solutionsingle-board computer (SBC), backplane, and chassisbased on PICMG 1.3. It offers proven dependability, long lifecycle support, and functional density when compared to some newer form factors like ATCA. Because those newer form factors are optimized for communications, theyre currently less established in medical markets. The PICMG alternative allows easy field service due to minimized downtime.

Benefits of Both Paths
Both paths can enable medical OEMs to embrace Intels new micro-architecture, which is codenamed Sandy Bridge. This micro-architecture features the second-generation Core i7 processor with a choice of high-performance C206 server chipset or Q67 Express desktop chipset. Backward compatibility reduces risks while speeding time to market.

The success of both alternatives begins with a commitment to product longevity. In this instance, lifecycle commitment is bolstered by continued product development. Such development uses established form factors, such as PICMG 1.3, to allow OEMs to simply upgrade an existing rackmount or shoebox system to Sandy Bridge. They dont have to start over with new form-factor blades.

Within the medical environment, theres still a large amount of superstructure built around these older standards. Many system-host-board (SHB, another term for SBC) manufacturers, such as Portwell Inc., provide solutions that are an excellent upgrade path for existing systems. These solutions function extremely well in todays low-profile technology.

The Sandy Bridge Solution
With its powerful built-in graphics engine, Sandy Bridge can be the perfect solution to high-end processing needs. Its new architecture embodies a substantial performance benefit over previous generations and can provide a seamless upgrade for the installed base. The new second-generation i7 processor includes several key features that benefit medical imaging without increasing the power/thermal envelope:

  • Scalable or desktop chipset (Q67) and server chipset (C206) options on the same SHB design: Before Sandy Bridge, a medical-systems manufacturer would have to choose from the following routes: server class, cost-saving desktop, or low-power mobile. Medical imaging generates an enormous amount of graphics data, which needs to be stored rapidly and retrieved and displayed just as quickly. The incredible performance gains over the last three chipset generations (including the architectural improvement of integrating the graphics controller and memory controller into the processor chip) have led to the server chipset offering a superset of the desktop chipsets featuresincluding graphics. The PCIe x16 interface can even be bifurcated into two PCIe x8 lanes.
  • Error-correcting circuitry (ECC): Previously a feature of server chipsets, ECC is now integrated into the processor and available for mobile platforms like notebook computers. ECC is important for the high-accuracy and high-reliability environments found in medical-imaging applications. ECC also supports both data integrity and rapid storage and redundancy, which protect the data from accidental corruption in the case of power spikes or other threats.
  • Tight integration: Sandy Bridge unifies the processor cores, memory controller, last-level cache (LLC), and graphics and media processing. This integration improves performance and efficiency in a variety of waysall of which benefit medical-imaging applications. With fast access by the cores and graphics to shared data in the LLC, graphics processing is accelerated. In addition, signaling and data must travel over fewer buses, which results in faster processing. More memory bandwidth for the cores boosts overall system performance.
  • Built-in visuals: A powerful graphics engine speeds image processing while hardware-based media accelerators and graphics-execution units significantly enhance performance.
  • Scalable computing: Among the many advantages that Sandy Bridges C206 and Q67 chipsets bring to medical OEMs is high-performance, scalable computing performance. This level of performance has been achieved without adversely affecting the platform TDP (thermal design power). Keeping heat output under controla challenge when designing with previous generation chipsetsis handled capably by Intels Turbo Boost Technology 2.0. It dynamically controls the performance and power of both cores and graphics by re-allocating the performance to either/or, depending upon the load. Turbo Boosts energy-saving algorithms boost performance exactly where and when its needed by checking constantly the temperature and current draw to determine available power. This is a perfect tool for an environment like medical imaging, which requires a large amount of data capture and almost instantaneous visual display.
  • All-in-one board design: Sandy Bridge is Intels first combined mobile and server-class platform with the same chip packages and pinouts. The result is both time and cost savings. Previously, two different board designs were involvedsometimes even two different chip manufacturers. Sandy Bridge solves this dichotomy with a simple, pin-to-pin-swappable solution at the board-assembly level.
  • Full 32-nm performance: Sandy Bridges 32-nm geometry allows more shrinkage and performance than Intels first-generation micro-architecturea 20% to 30% improvement. This allows for greater integration by combining the processor with the graphics and memory controllers. The previous Calpella platform used the Nehalem architecture with a dual-die Arrandale Core i7 processor family. The multi-chip module (MCM) consisting of 32-nm processor die and 45-nm Northbridge die has now been replaced by a monolithic 32-nm die. This change translates into both space reduction and performance gains (see Figure 1).

Protect the Legacy Investment
Some SHB vendors provide longevity and commitment to legacy systems that have served medical OEMs well. As a result, medical OEMs know that they can still function with their legacy systems in a time of tighter budgets. They can simply design the latest platforms on older form factors.

For example, Portwells ROBO-8110VG2AR, which is shown in Figure 1, is short (338.5 mm) and wide (126.39 mm). As a result, it can stand up in a horizontal backplane within a standard 4U chassis or plug laterally into a vertical backplane to squeeze into a 2U chassis. This chassis includes a low-profile backplane with one PCIe x16 graphics slot to display high-resolution images, one PCIe x4 slot, and three PCI slots to support system OEMs legacy cards. The SHB supports both the Core i7/i5/i3 and Xeon processors in an LGA 1155 package.

Due to its benefits, the C206 server was chosen for the standard configuration. It also offers the legacy I/O interfaces needed in this market, such as serial ports, parallel port, and even floppy disk drive (FDD). For greater peace of mind, this one-stop upgrade solution can be provided as board-level or system-level, off-the-shelf, or customized. Most importantly, these solutions comply with ISO 13485, which is more stringent than basic ISO 9001 quality system requirements.



Colin McCracken is the director of solution architecture at American Portwell Technology Inc. in Fremont, Calif. American Portwell is one of the only board manufacturers in Intels Embedded Alliance Program to be certified to ISO 13485 Medical ISO in the U.S. McCracken can be reached at colinm@portwell.com.