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EDITOR'S REPORT

Eurotech—from Sensors to Supercomputers

The number of intelligent devices is lurching toward the trillions and the number of people interacting with them is in the billions. Making all the data and functionality available and useful requires a comprehensive ecosystem.

BY TOM WILLIAMS, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

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What kind of embedded computing company also produces Petascale supercomputers—computers running at over 1,000 Teraflops—and considers them integral to their embedded business? The answer is Amaro, Italy-based Eurotech, which has recently introduced its Aurora scalable supercomputer. But Eurotech is very much an embedded systems company offering a wide range of embedded boards, stationary and mobile integrated devices as well as wearable integrated systems such as their wrist wearable Zypad computer. In fact, the company says it gets over half its revenue from integrated, application-ready box-level embedded systems. And a scalable supercomputer too??

According to company president and CTO Arlen Nipper, “Without embedded systems, IT wouldn’t have anything to do.” Well, maybe not much to do, but the converse would seem to imply that because of embedded systems, specifically connected embedded systems, there is so much data and so much knowledge that can be made use of at higher levels that IT-scale systems need to be greatly expanded to deal with it all and need to be thought of as an integral part of what embedded systems are designed to do.

The application areas addressed by Eurotech’s products and technologies are not exactly exotic—mass transportation, logistics, machine automation and process control, medical instrumentation to name a few. However, the concept of a multi-layered, interconnected information environment based on those embedded devices is something that is being promulgated throughout the company’s self image—and thus to its customers. In fact, having struggled through terms like cloud computing and pervasive computing, Eurotech has coined its own description, called Everyware, to encompass the boards, systems, routers and gateways, integrated boxes, software components and tools as well as the supercomputer environment.

Consider a transportation system like a train or a truck fleet. Managing such systems is often cited as a prime example of “machine-to-machine” systems technology, and this is indeed the case. The hierarchy of devices in the vehicle alone comprises a small network representing different aspects of a vehicle’s operation such as bearing wear, fuel, vibrations and GPS location. Depending on the type of transportation system, there will also be other subsystems such as surveillance, passenger count, freight load and destinations and more. The individual vehicle collects all this data in an onboard system—often a rugged mobile computer built into the vehicle—and is then linked to the larger fleet management system via satellite, WWAN or other wireless connection (Figure 1).

Figure 1
This Eurotech DuraCOR DC 1200 is an example of an Atom-based rugged integrated computer that can be used in mobile applications to gather and preprocess data from sensors and embedded modules and communicate over wireless links with larger administrative applications.

By the same token, industrial plants, hospitals and gambling casinos consist of devices from sensors, cameras, machine controllers and more all connected to a local network, sometimes with a local human interface, but also usually to a much larger supervisory system where “islands of knowledge” can be evaluated and used together for even larger goals. Imagine, as a simple example, that an anomalous pattern showing up at the blackjack table could alert an operator and at the same time direct the security camera to that table. Thus, even the wearer of a PC-based wrist computer with a wireless connection is an integral part of a much larger application (Figure 2).

Figure 2
This configuration of a Zypad wrist computer is equipped with a bar code reader for inventory and logistics applications. Its wireless link with a larger system on the warehouse floor and also with a corporate system makes its data available to a wide range of applications that can utilize it.

Of course, such systems are already being implemented with diverse hardware elements, supervisory mainframes and software components plus specialized application programming. The Everyware environment seeks to offer components for the entire range of the hierarchy ranging from components and devices for real-world applications to connectivity platforms making heavy use of wireless technology to build the edge and on up to the “big iron” that enables the cloud where information is collected, processed, used by human operators and redistributed to devices that need it.

These then must be knitted together with a compatible set of software modules that enables the system developer to begin adding value at a higher level than operating systems and board support packages. Starting with bootloader/BIOS and operating system at the board level, the software environment must enable the domain experts to begin assembling systems and then adding value without having to struggle with their non-core competencies.

To this end, Eurotech is launching its Everyware Software Framework (ESF), on its Atom-based embedded platforms (Figure 3). The ESF offers open source Eclipse-based development tools along with the Java Micro Edition Virtual Machine built up on board support software (BIOS, operating systems, drivers, etc.) for the various hardware platforms ranging from its Atom-based Catalyst module to the new Helios programmable edge controller to the DuroCOR 1200/1400 rugged mobile computers, to name a few.

Figure 3
The Everyware Software Framework combines basic board-level software with development tools and embedded middleware to help users more quickly address their specialized application needs.

Beyond the Java level, however, there is an OSGi application framework consisting of “bundles” that represent a sort of embedded middleware that lets application developers get started at an even higher level. Foundation bundles are functional packages such as device virtualization, diagnostics, security, firewall, WiFi management and so forth that are common to a great many applications. Beyond that are some more domain-specific bundles that are common to various application domains such as GPS and passenger counters for transportation or Bluetooth and USB profile bundles for medical devices.

At the top of the pyramid and tying it all together is a very unusual system for an embedded vendor to produce let alone to engineer as an integral part of its embedded vision, and that is the Aurora scalable supercomputer. Aurora is based on a compute node built around two Intel Xeon 5500 series quad-core processors (formerly code-named Nahalem). Each processor is equipped with up to 12 Gbytes of DDR3-1333 RAM and interfaces via a 5520 chipset to three system networks: a unified general-purpose network based on QDR InfiniBand, a second network based on a switchless toroidal topology, and a third global synchronization network that provides a pacing mechanism at the system level. Each compute node uses a solid-state drive for local storage, and the InfiniBand network supplies access to the larger storage area network (Figure 4).

Figure 4
In the Aurora supercomputer, each of the 16 modules in this chassis is liquid-cooled and hot-swappable. Each has two Xeon 5500 processors for 93.76 GFLOPS of peak performance. Two of these chassis back-to-back with liquid cooling between can be stacked in a rack of eight. A 3D toroidal network can be used for nearest neighbor communication configurations for massive parallel operations.

Each compute node can supply over 93 Gflops of peak performance and up to 32 compute nodes can be plugged into a 6U chassis amounting to 3 Teraflops of peak performance. A chassis consists of two 16-node 19-inch racks set back-to-back with the liquid cooling system between them. The liquid cooling system moves coolant through cooling plates mounted against the devices on both sides of each board. These are connected via leak-free push-to-connect devices to help enable the hot-swap capabilities of the boards. Chassis can be arranged in a rack containing eight full chassis for a peak performance of 24 Teraflops. Connecting up to 42 such racks can deliver a peak performance of 1 Petaflops—over 1,000 Teraflops.

As intelligent electronic devices continue to shrink in size and grow in power, they become an ever more natural part of everyday life. Eventually, we may so take them for granted that we accept them as extensions of our own perceptions and sensations. But behind that natural acceptance is an ever growing and ever more complex infrastructure that must work seamlessly and intuitively. Thanks to this, it seems like IT does have something to do after all. And it may also just have the means to do it.