San Jose, Calif. -- Like their counterparts in PC design, embedded-systems engineers are turning to multicore processors for the promised advantages in processing might, power consumption and footprint.
"There is a tendency to think that embedded applications don't require the increase in performance that multicore offers, but that's not the case," said Doug Davis, vice president and general manager of Intel Corp.'s embedded and communications group. Citing compute- intensive applications like high-end communications and medical imaging, Davis said embedded-systems customers have clamored for Intel to offer multicore devices with extended life cycle support.
Jim McGregor, an analyst at market research firm In-Stat (Scottsdale, Ariz.), said embedded developers want the higher performance of multicore chips with the power savings achieved from merging the capability of four standalone chips into one quad-core device. "A lot of embedded applications want the ability to scale up in power or scale down in footprint, and still maintain the necessary level of performance," McGregor said.
Intel's announcement here last week at the Embedded Systems Conference (ESC) that it would offer quad-core processors with extended support for the embedded computing segment surprised few. By adding quad-core Xeon 5300 processors to the company's embedded product road map, Intel guaranteed their availability for a minimum of five to seven years. In doing so, the company mimicked its actions of a year ago, when it announced extended life cycle support for the Core Duo processor, after rolling out the CPU for mainstream applications a month earlier. Intel later declared some of its Core 2 Duo processors suitable for the embedded market.
In an ESC keynote address, Intel's Davis highlighted the growing challenges facing embedded-systems designers as more information is generated and stored, and security becomes paramount. The lines between embedded applications and infrastructure are blurring, he said, and users have no tolerance for systems that don't work as advertised. As an example, Davis cited last month's merging of America West's and U.S. Air's computer systems. The move, he said, was remarkably successful, with thousands of reservations handled nearly seamlessly. But there were a few hundred instances of travelers being negatively affected, and these problems generated the most press, he said.
"Our job as developers is to mask the complexity," Davis said. "The complexity is only visible when a system doesn't work as expected. Users don't have tolerance for the complexity behind them. We fundamentally can't compromise on ease of use."
Davis said multicore processors allow companies with legacy applications the ability to continue running them on one core--without the need to rewrite massive amounts of code--while they run new applications on the other cores. This attribute is considered particularly attractive for military applications. Developers "can't rip up the digital infrastructure every few years to take advantage of new technologies," Davis said.
Intel devoted a significant portion of its ESC booth to showcasing the work of customers that have used the Core Duo processors for embedded applications. Intel representatives said multicore de- vices enable embedded-systems developers to create new applications and give them more headroom in designs.
"We've found a lot of uses for dual-core," said Phil Hiller, strategic-accounts manager at Kontron America, a subsidiary of the German embedded and mobile rugged-products vendor. "People are trying to do more with processors that they used to do with FPGAs--anywhere they have to process a lot of information quickly." Kontron last week unveiled a family of embedded motherboards that supports Intel's Core 2 Duo processor T7400.
Dale Johnson, vice president of systems sales and product management at Real Digital Media (Sarasota, Fla.), a digital signage platform vendor, said his company turned to multicore because it "needed more horsepower" and multithreading. In January, Real Digital Media rolled out its Neocast Media Player Z, a digital signage product that runs on a Core Duo and supports high-definition video, Windows Media video and Apple QuickTime content. "We have a very pragmatic way of seeing things. Either it works or it doesn't. Either it meets our power requirements or it doesn't," he said.
Intel representatives also showcased the latest retail point-of-sale system from NCR Corp. (Dayton, Ohio). Intel noted that multicore performance allowed NCR to take some functions that were running on backroom servers and incorporate them directly into the system, reducing latency. NCR has used the second core to support a second LCD screen that can display advertising directly to customers based on historical buying habits. The system can be controlled remotely, enabling technicians to diagnose and fix problems from their home base.
Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices Inc. also markets multicore parts to the embedded-systems market. In August 2005, AMD added several of its dual-core Opteron processors to its longevity program for embedded designs.
"AMD has had kind of a love/hate relationship with the embedded market. They've embraced it more and have been more willing to support the embedded market in the past few years," said In-Stat's McGregor. "Intel has always been very good at supporting the embedded market."
Indeed, Davis spent the first 45 minutes of his hourlong keynote detailing Intel's 30-year history of supporting the embedded market. But he found time to announce that Intel's Xeon E5335 and E5345 would be the first quad-core processors available for embedded computing. He also introduced Paul Teutal Sr., of TV's Orange County Choppers, who built an Intel-themed motorcycle to commemorate the announce- ment. The bike was a hit. A significant portion of the large audience at the San Jose Civic Auditorium appeared to be there just to catch a glimpse of it.