SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The battle for the Internet of Things heats up this week as Intel and ARM fire off competing announcements to establish their microprocessor architectures on its broad frontiers.
Intel announced its first Atom SoC with real-time capabilities tailored for automotive and industrial markets. Less than two miles away from Intel’s headquarters, ARM kicked off its annual developer’s conference with news it is bringing hardware security to its lowest-end microcontroller cores.
ARM has a clear lead in the emerging ground game for end nodes with its Cortex-M microcontrollers. Intel, the world’s largest semiconductor company, ranks 17th among MCU vendors with its relatively new Quark x86 chips, making it about equal with Panasonic and Sharp according to market watcher IHS Inc.
“Renesas, NXP and Microchip are an order of magnitude ahead of Intel in MCUs,” said Tom Hackenberg who tracks the sector for IHS.
The market for chips that sometimes sell for less than $1 is new to Intel and strategic to IoT. “What makes IoT a new area are the advancements in end nodes, pushing the intelligence down to apps that didn’t have that Internet access before,” said Hackenberg.
While it’s not yet discussing it publicly, Intel has a plan, and the current Quark chips are just its first foray. The company is said to have as many as six other x86 microcontroller designs in the works.
“Intel tried getting into deeply embedded systems with [ARM-based] Xscale [chips several years ago], and it didn’t work particularly well. Now they decided they can do it by redesigning the x86,” said Hackenberg.
To compete with the leaders in MCUs, Intel needs to deliver Quark x86 chips that:
- Deliver 1-milliwatt active power levels to compete with Cortex-M0 chips
- Include the rich portfolio of memory, I/O and connectivity options of ARM’s partners
- Target specific vertical markets, such as an automotive MCU with multiple CAN buses
- Bring its x86 programming tools and partners into the MCU world
- Make it as easy to support a hardware root-of-trust as ARM has with its new TrustZone CryptoCell
“The embedded word does not know security well and in the years to come it will be a huge issue,” Hackenberg said.
Next page: A first look inside Intel’s Quark
An August paper at Hot Chips provided a look inside the first iteration of Intel's Quark x86 microcontroller. (Images: Intel)