Electronic Design

Power-Sipping Micros, Multicore Monsters Dot The Landscape

Anyone waiting for a consolidation to occur in the micro or DSP arenas should settle in for the long haul. The choices just keep growing, even as vendors attempt to use software and peripheral consistency to simplify what developers have to deal with. Yet the array of options isn’t the sole purveyor of multiplicity. Multicore also falls into this category, and now it’s moving into embedded.

Low-count, high-performance multicore chips will continue to dominate the PC and server market. Yet smallercore, large-count multicore chips will jump from spec sheet to applications. One common feature at all levels is power conservation. At the low end, it extends battery life. At the high end, it means servers don’t turn into toasters.

64-BIT MICROS • Intel’s Intel i7 “Nehalem” bursts out of the gate in 2008 for gamers (Fig. 1). This new architecture will shine in 2009, but it will compete with AMD’s Shanghai as well as systems from Sun and IBM using their own architectures.

The six- and eight-core chips will now be the norm on servers and high-performance systems, though the interconnect will now be on the forefront. Intel’s Quick Path Interconnect (QPI) joins HyperTransport in making high-count, multichip solutions practical.

Dynamic power and performance control will also be critical. The new chips provide a range of optimizations in this area, from powering down or boosting each core to providing similar control to chip interfaces and memory.

Virtualization is already indispensable, but it will gain importance due to greater use in desktop and embedded environments. Support for I/O virtualization will finally be deployed.

Equally important will be 64-bit processors for the mobile and embedded space, where Intel’s Atom is making a lot of noise (Fig. 2). It has heavy competition from VIA Technologies and AMD in addition to ARM and MIPS.

Multicore plays a part here, but a single core and low power will work equally well. Integrated graphics and hardware multimedia acceleration will be prerequisites. Driving factors include the mobile Internet device (MID) and netbook arenas.

GPUS DO MORE THAN GRAPHICS • Graphics processing units (GPUs) recently jumped into the general computational realm as vendors opened previously closed environments to developers. Watch out for how Nvidia and AMD ATI enhance their hardware and software to expand the applicability of GPUs to new applications.

he challenge for vendors this year is to show how their architectures can address their graphics roots as well as more general computation. A possible advantage is the greater stature of integrated GPUs in laptops and desktops thanks to increasing non-graphics potential. As a result, GPUs needn’t be dedicated to fancy GUIs or gaming.

Alternatively, be on the lookout for desktop supercomputers. Nvidia’s Tesla Personal SuperComputer platforms pack four Tesla C1060 boards into a standard tower case (Fig. 3). That’s 960 cores, and it’s just the start.

NEW MULTICORE CHIPS • GPUs and 64-bit multicore chips are just a couple of ways to throw lots of processing power at a problem. Chips from the likes of XMOS (see “Multicore And Soft Peripherals Target Multimedia Applications” at www.electronicdesign.com, ED Online 16231), Tilera, Ambric, and Intellasys will be shipping in quantity (see “Are You Migrating To Massive Multicore Yet?” ED Online 19976). Development platforms such as the $99 XMOS XC-1 open this arena to all comers with features like hardware communication and scheduling (Fig. 4).

Developers are giving the software tools for these platforms quite a workout. This is imperative now that the hardware is readily available. Vendors would like to deliver multicore features transparently, but that isn’t the case. Thus, programmers will have to fill in the blanks, which requires experience.

32-BIT MICROS GROW UP... AND DOWN • The 32-bit platforms from ARM, MIPS, Renesas, and Freescale are the darlings of development attuned to C, which is still the dominant development tool. Many 32-bit microcontroller lines are matched with 8- and 16-bit counterparts in continuums, providing developers with even more choice and compatibility on the hardware and software sides. The C compilers and runtimes tie these architectures together.

Multicore in the 32-bit space is likely to remain an asymmetrical-multiprocessing (AMP) approach with accelerators and specialized co-processors augmenting a conventional CPU. The 32-bit architectures reach into the workstation market, especially the MID and netbook arena.

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8 AND 16 BITS • Don’t count out 8- and 16-bit platforms. There will be more powerful versions and smaller, lower-power solutions. The 32-bit platforms are applying pressure, though there’s no competition yet when it comes to small chips housing architectures like Microchip’s 8-bit PIC.

Most projects will still utilize C, allowing for portability. But why move up to a 32-bit chip when the price, performance, and power attributes are so much better in the 8- and 16-bit space? These chips won’t go away, and you can expect new versions at the same prolific rate as in the past.

They’re the hottest commodities for wireless sensor support, where power scavenging will play a major role this year. Micros also can be coupled with thin-film battery modules like Cymbet’s CBC3150 (Fig. 5).

DSPs AND DSCs • Multicore and high-speed serial rule in the highend, 64-bit floating-point DSP space. Performance remains the key, yet keeping the chips cool is high on the list of features and requirements. DSP farms are growing cores as quickly as possible. Companies like Freescale will continue to push floating point down the line as well.

The fixed-point digital-signal-controller (DSC) market will be especially hot with cool chips and more compact packaging. Analog Devices’ Blackfin will make Sixense’s TrueMotion 3D magnetic game controller possible.

MORE KITS • New chips that don’t have development kits aren’t likely to find a home. Kits in 2009 are looking to help developers turn out something useful as quickly as possible.

USB will remain the low-cost alternative, e.g., Texas Instruments’ C2000-based Piccolo. This 32-bit DSC platform only costs $39. The header provides access to the chip’s analog and digital peripherals. Look for more development platforms to mate with standard interfaces providing access to third-party peripherals.

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