Like their microprocessor-making cousins in the X86-based PC world, suppliers of high-end embedded processors appear to be raising the white flag in the breakneck megahertz race. Instead of focusing on raw performance alone, suppliers are now racing to develop a range of 32- and 64-bit multicore solutions that claim to address a potential power crisis in the high-end embedded space.
In the latest developments in the emerging sector, Cavium Networks Inc. (Mountain View, Calif.) and Freescale Semiconductor Inc. (Austin, Texas) on Monday (June 25) are scheduled to separately introduce major multicore processor lines for high-end embedded applications. The products provide a sneak preview of next-generation multicore architectures--and the challenges--in the networking, storage, wireless and other embedded markets.
Startup Cavium will roll out an embedded-processor line for the storage and communications markets, based on a 64-bit architecture from MIPS Technologies Inc. Reportedly seeking to play catch-up in the market, rival Freescale is to launch a next-generation multicore platform built around the PowerPC-based Power Architecture. Its new platform is based on a 45-nanometer process and silicon-on-insulator (SOI) technology--in this particular segment, Freescale appears to be skipping the 65-nm node.
AMCC, Broadcom, Intel, PA Semi, Raza and other vendors have recently introduced single or multicore embedded processors for networking, storage, wireless and related high-end applications, all for a good reason: This chip market could exceed $3 billion by 2010.
The vast majority of OEMs still procure single-core, 32- and 64-bit solutions, but the market dynamics are rapidly changing. "In the high-end embedded space, we're hitting the wall in power dissipation," said Linley Gwennap, president and principal analyst of the Linley Group (Mountain View).
Higher-end communication systems such as basestations, DSL equipment and routers generally have power budget requirements of up to 15 to 20 watts, Gwennap said. But OEMs are generally tapping out on these budgets, forcing them to look at new multicore solutions to address the growing power-efficiency problems in system design, he said.
Embedded multicore solutions have been around for some time. But for power efficiency and other factors, the newfangled ones are moving from the early- adopter stage to the mainstream, said Amer Haider, director of strategic marketing at Cavium.
Scaling is far from dead, but the megahertz race at the high end of the embedded market appears to be winding down.
This trend resembles the PC-based processor market. For years, Intel claimed it could boost the clock speeds in a processor to 10 GHz or more, but power dissipation remained a huge stumbling block. AMD and Intel were forced to end the megahertz race in the PC market in favor of multicore solutions. A multicore product takes existing processor cores and scales them in a system-on-chip configuration, thereby reducing chip count and power. Multicore products are also supposed to split the functions among the cores, making the system more efficient.