Electronic Design

Multicore Technology Pushes Virtualization

It’s been a wild and frantic year for designers of embedded devices. A wide range of products has boosted performance, cut costs, and reduced power requirements by impressive amounts. On top of that, many new releases deliver matching reference designs or low-cost development kits, enabling developers to quickly check out the latest offerings.

Take DLP Design’s DLP-FPGA platform, which doubles as a deployable module based on a Xilinx Spartan 3E as well as an evaluation and training platform (Fig. 1). FPGA adoption is up as prices drop, development tools improve, and designers exploit FPGA performance.

New combinations were delivered to the lab in 2007, too, like Texas Instruments’ eZ430-RF2500. It combines an MSP430 microcontroller with a low-cost RF transceiver. A pair of modules is included in a development package under $50—great for portable wireless applications.

Parts based on the MicroTCA standard may finally see the light of day next year. But developers looking for a small form factor might check out 3U VPX (VITA 46) boards like P.A. Semi’s PA6T-1628M or Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing’s VPX3-125, based on lowpower PowerPC chips. The processors incorporate PCI Express and 10-Gbit Ethernet fabric interfaces.

EPIC Express didn’t see the light of day this year, but new form factors such as VIA Technologies’ Pico-ITX look to move the latest processors into the small form-factor space (Fig. 2). Compact form factors like Kontron’s nanoETXexpress build on existing standards like COM Express.

Even smaller form factors are possible with MEMS technology. Freescale’s MPXY8300 uses the company’s system-inpackage (SiP) technology to combine an 8-bit microcontroller, a Smart- MOS RF transmitter, and a MEMS pressure sensor into a single package (Fig. 3). This approach reduces a system’s footprint and power requirements. Wireless integration simplifies deployment.

Today, the 64-bit multicore solutions on servers and desktops grab the limelight. Yet solutions for standard embedded platforms from MIPS and ARM push performance to 1 GHz. Fine and coarse clock gating are key to reducing generated heat and power requirements. SMP remains the primary architecture, but distributing functionality via virtual machines or dedicated cores is common.

Multicore solutions have led to more novel designs, such as Raytheon’s MONARCH (Morphable Networked Micro-Architecture) architecture. This approach is useful in applications that change dynamically, say, from stream processing to data processing.

High-performance computing takes advantage of 64-bit multicore platforms. Specialized compute platforms often can augment these systems, though. AMD’s R580 turns multicore graphics processing toward more general stream-processing applications. This approach heralds asymmetric processing architectures that are moving toward the chip level.

Multicore solutions often need to support a range of operating environments. Virtualmachine managers (VMMs) like Xen make this possible. Enhancements in Intel’s and AMD’s latest 64-bit multicores use new hardware acceleration to reduce VMM overhead.

Products like Trango Virtual Processors’ Trango Hypervisor target ARM and MIPS processors. There’s also VMware’s Lab Manager, which brings VMM support into the development, test, and deployment realm. It spreads VMM control across processor networks, not just a single system.

The other side of the virtual realm addresses the lack of hardware. Virtutech’s Simics was chosen to simulate Freescale’s MPC8641D dual-core embedded processor even before the chip made it out of the foundry. Virtutech isn’t alone in this area. VaST Systems’ CoMET and its METeor embedded softwaredevelopment environment let developers create and test applications without target hardware.

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