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Processor Roadmap for the Coming Year

COLIN MCCRACKEN

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2013 is already shaping up as a banner year for embedded processors from 1W SoCs to quad and hex core machines with huge caches and innovative thermal solutions. The usual suspects are preparing their roadmaps by extending their successful current generation offerings. Look no further than their primary market announcements (consumer/enterprise) to know what’s heading our way.

High-end processors each come with a companion chip (chipset) from the same vendor that serves as an I/O hub. These chipsets are quite impressive with many PCIe lanes, USB 3.0, SATA II and GigE MACs. It’s a diff-pair world, and price and power consumption aren’t really critical in this performance class. Sure, the legacy parallel buses are gone, but so is the requirement for a third large IC. Board vendors can support either parallel PCI or ISA bus by adding a small/cheap or smaller/cheaper bridge chip, respectively, or simply skip both in a ground-up new design.

Low-end processors, however, are all about Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) and Cost, just like the commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) boards and modules onto which they’re mounted. That means fewer PCIe lanes and few or no power-hog USB 3.0 or SATA II ports. Sometimes even an old-school serial port or two may appear, presenting a compatibility challenge to the various COTS off-board interfaces. This year appears to be finally the inflection point of true x86 SoCs. This is a big win for board vendors and small form factor (SFF) standards alike. Each new generation is yet another stellar tribute to the livelihood of Moore’s Law. At the processor level, at least, there is no high-tech “fiscal cliff” in sight.

Continuing their “tick-tock” model, Intel will follow its newly launched 22nm “Ivy Bridge” third generation Core i-series platform with the fourth generation 22nm “Haswell” microarchitecture. Experience with this semiconductor process makes it harder for competitors to keep up. Low-end models target graphics-oriented embedded apps while staying under 20-25W with Intel’s long seven year plus lifecycle for select models. For this, we are truly grateful.

Not to be outdone, AMD is currently launching its “Fusion” quad core and dual core 32nm “eTrinity” processors. AMD has done a stellar job at enabling software support for its integrated GPUs, such as DirectX 11, OpenGL and OpenCL. Thermal design power (TDP) ratings range from 17W to 35W. From a purely embedded market perspective, these processors are priced well and pose the most significant threat to Intel in many years. Racers, start your engines.

Starting to make some headway with OEMs in the tablet space (but not smartphones yet), Intel’s current “Cedar Trail” (“Cedarview”) platform has several new ACPI power-saving states. Intel should fully catch up to ARM by using its process technology advantage, and has already announced the acceleration of the “Valleyview” true single-chip / system-on-chip (SoC) family on 22nm for consumer markets. AMD is not far off the pace, with 28nm SoCs called Kabini and Kaveri on the 2013 consumer roadmap behind the power-efficient graphics of its 40nm eOntario. Although it’s not clear how well AMD will do in the consumer and enterprise markets, squeezed below Intel and above ARM, embedded developers will be the clear winners, with certain models likely to be added to AMD’s long lifecycle embedded roadmap.

While ARM-based SoC manufacturers are too numerous to list, many are chasing extremely high-volume and high-turnover consumer electronics markets and would be risky choices for long-life embedded systems. Among the few with long-term availability commitments is Freescale, whose brand new i.MX6 family features single, dual and quad ARM Cortex A9 cores, 3D graphics, 1080p decode, and includes models with an impressive 10-year lifecycle, due to its automotive heritage while under Motorola’s wing. Embedded boards are just becoming available this quarter.

Take note: The software “wolf” is always at the door. Linux has broad processor support (RISC and CISC) when it comes to instruction set architecture, privilege mode and compiler support, however, device driver support may not cover all I/O categories. Windows is now catching up with ARM support as part of the Windows 8 project. Launched alongside the x86 Win8 back in October, Windows RT is being distributed to tablet OEMs. Besides access to the OS, ARM-based device driver support and applications are certainly limited at this time. Managers and project leaders who come from a hardware design background would be well advised to ask their software engineer peers to pour through the OS and driver support to minimize the “gotchas” when developing with these next-gen platforms.