ADLINK Brings Intel-blue Skylake CPU Down to Earth

Leave it to ADLINK to sort out the confusion of Intel’s 6th-Generation processors into an easy-to-understand embedded board and system roadmap.

Intel’s 6th-Generation Core™ processor—codenamed Skylake—has been talked about in close circles for a while and CPUs started appearing in Fall 2015. But unlike any Intel® processor before, Skylake has dozens of flavors—some report as many as 40 stock units. All these variations-on-a-theme might cause havoc for most embedded board vendors, but not ADLINK.

ADLINK plans to announce twelve new Skylake-based products over the six-month Intel cycle ending in March 2016. Figuring out Skylake’s features and how they apply to the embedded market is as simple as a quick review of ADLINK’s product offerings. Any company with 12 new products in lock step with Intel’s product launch cycle must understand Skylake inside and out. To bring you up-to-speed on Skylake, let’s take a look at what ADLINK is up to.

Skylake’s Gradual Launch

Intel actually has been releasing Skylake processor versions since the summer 2015. More followed in September 2015, a few more in December, and more are expected in early 2016. It’s difficult to predict how many different versions of Skylake there will be or how many will be supported in embedded applications, since some versions of the product (called “SKUs”—stock units) are still under NDA. Most journalists in the know predict somewhere between 30 and 40+ SKUs, although only a small number of these will be embedded.

Skylake is critical for Intel’s vision of the Internet of Things (IoT), and versions of the processor target the edge, gateway and the cloud (Figure 1). With versions for ultra-low power 2:1 and tablet markets, some for “value” notebook computers (Core M), some for embedded, some for desktops (both mainstream and high-end over-clocked gaming rigs), and even some versions for servers—Intel is offering something for every conceivable platform.

Figure 1: Skylake fits throughout Intel’s IoT vision. (Infographic courtesy Intel.)

Figure 1: Skylake fits throughout Intel’s IoT vision. (Infographic courtesy Intel.)

And according to Intel executives, this is the company’s most “scalable” processor…and their “best ever.” It’s hard to argue either point; Skylake has the best-of-the-best feature set, with improvements found everywhere you look. It’s got higher performance, lower power, more I/O, much better integrated graphics and a lot more SKUs than ever before.

Amidst all of these improvements, spec sheets and permutations, embedded board vendors have announced a handful of products. Standing out from the crowd of onesy-twosy product board vendors is ADLINK, which recently announced yet another Skylake product—with seven Skylake-based products being shown this month at Embedded World in Nuremberg. One of now only four Intel Internet-of-Things (IoT) Alliance Premier Members (down from five last year), ADLINK works extremely closely with Intel and has that inside track that other embedded vendors lack.

Yet while Skylake itself is a commodity processor destined to sell by the millions, not every Skylake product implementation need be a commodity. ADLINK’s latest Skylake-based single-board computers and embedded boards build upon the processor’s innovations with a complement of flexible I/O, proprietary firmware and IoT-targeted applications and SDKs, wrapped in extended temperature boards and boxes.

Better is the Tock

ADLINK follows Intel’s Tick-Tock product intro cycle closely, where Skylake is a “Tock” with many architectural improvements (Figure 2). According to Dirk Finstel, CEO EMEA & Executive Vice President of ADLINK´s Module Computing Product Segment, “Only ten percent of our customers moved to Broadwell; 90 percent were awaiting Skylake.” Broadwell is Intel’s 5th Generation processor that was quickly eclipsed by Skylake. So what is Skylake’s biggest attraction?

Figure 2: Skylake’s Microarchitecture (courtesy: Intel.)

Figure 2: Skylake’s Microarchitecture (courtesy: Intel.)

Finstel thinks it’s the DDR4 memory compared to DDR3. Although the specs for clock frequency and latency show only a slight edge for DDR4 in benchmarks documented in AnandTech’s article “Comparing DDR3 to DDR4”, ADLINK’s Finstel predicts that DDR4 will be the standard within two years and that its price will be lower than DDR3.

Skylake is optimized for DDR4 but still supports DDR3, and Intel’s estimates show Skylake is “10-20%” faster, partly due to the DDR4. Finstel quotes “about 20 percent” improvement in overall memory bandwidth due to Skylake’s new microarchitecture with single/multi-threads (Figure 3).

ADLINK’s AmITX-SL-G Mini-ITX embedded motherboard takes advantage of the upgraded memory support with dual DDR4 SODIMM memory sockets. The AmITX-SL-G is specifically designed for customers who need high-level processing and graphics performance with a long product life solution by offering an array of built-in I/O ports, as well as expansion capabilities for even more I/O options.

As well, Skylake can address up to 64GB total RAM, up from 32GB. This is a significant advantage for systems running multiple virtual machines (VMs) or doing heavy-duty image processing—two applications targeted by ADLINK’s just-announced IMB-M43 Industrial ATX Motherboard (Figure 3).  This product is typical of the company’s product options, offering better-than-commercial environmental specs, including ESD testing to IEC 61000-4-2~6 (Performance Criteria A). And although the motherboard supports 5x PCIe 3.0 expansion slots, using one of them for a graphics card may not be necessary due to Skylake’s better-than-ever integrated graphics processor (IGP).

Figure 3: ADLINK’s Skylake-based industrial computing ATX motherboard. Motherboards will be Intel’s “sweet spot” for Skylake.

Figure 3: ADLINK’s Skylake-based industrial computing ATX motherboard. Motherboards will be Intel’s “sweet spot” for Skylake.

Intel Sees Future in Integrated Graphics

Between the three metrics—power, performance and graphics—Intel has focused the most on graphics with Skylake. While Intel’s integrated Iris™ graphics have been “good enough” for a long time (the Macbook Air on which this article is being written uses Intel’s IGP), the company has consistently taken heat for mediocre performance compared to standalone GPUs from Nvidia and AMD. Intel cites Skylake as being “up to 50% better [at] 3D gaming” versus the predecessor Broadwell 5th Generation CPU (u­sing the Skylake SKU with GT4e IGP vs the GT3e IGP).

ADLINK intends to take full advantage of Skylake’s better graphics in several embedded products. ADLINK’s Finstel cites a “3x improvement overall.”  With ADLINK’s cExpress-SL Compact Size Type 6 COM Express module, Skylake’s image processing performance is put to use driving three independent displays in several configurations of DDI (DP, DVI or HDMI), LVDS, or eDP (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Skylake-based COM Express Type 6 embedded module drives three independent displays.

Figure 4: Skylake-based COM Express Type 6 embedded module drives three independent displays.

Designed for IoT systems ranging from Smart Gateways to embedded controllers for factory automation displays, Skylake has hardware CODECs for encode/transcode between video formats. A use case is transcoding between machine vision cameras, HMI displays (including 4K), and DVR storage. The processor has support for an impressive array of graphics languages, including DirectX, OpenGL and OpenCL. Besides DDR4 mentioned above, Skylake supports the newer enhanced DRAM (eDRAM) with onboard SRAM for faster cache READs.

I/O, I/O…to Work It Goes

Intel’s Skylake also “breaks” the progression of previous socket-compatible embedded SKUs. Now with several pinout variations, new embedded board designs are required because Skylake adds more I/O on the CPU and in new chipset versions. ADLINK’s Dirk Finstel says that Skylake has more of everything, except power. On that front, in the popular 35W embedded SKU, finer-grained clock gating, memory channel gating, and new Speed Shift power states either reduce overall power consumption, extend battery life in IoT applications, or both.

On the I/O front, ADLINK points out that there are now a whopping 20 PCIe 3.0 x1 lanes versus “only” eight with Haswell (4th Generation in 2014). The company’s cExpress-SL COM Express board, for example, has five PCIe Gen2, GigE, three SATA, four USB 3.0, four USB 2.0 and still operates over -40 ºC to +85ºC.

In yet another new Skylake embedded design—this one a Basic Size COM Express module Express-SL/SLE—ADLINK included eight PCIe x1 and one PCIe x16, all in Gen3 flavor. The secret to these variations between embedded boards is less the CPU than it is the variety of Skylake chipsets (Figure 5). The new ADLINK embedded boards can be equipped with one of three Intel chipsets: QM170, HM170 and CM236. The differences are best viewed on Intel’s ARK website, but briefly: CM236 has ECC memory and Intel’s out-of-band Active Management Technology (AMT); QM170 has non-ECC with AMT; and HM170 has neither.

Figure 5: New I/O chipsets accompany Skylake CPUs, offering a remarkable array of options and features. This block diagram is for ADLINK’s Express-SL/SLE COM Express Basic Size embedded module.

Figure 5: New I/O chipsets accompany Skylake CPUs, offering a remarkable array of options and features. This block diagram is for ADLINK’s Express-SL/SLE COM Express Basic Size embedded module.

Managing for the IoT

It’s features in Skylake like Active Management Technology—and more—that appeal most to embedded IoT-focused companies like ADLINK. As Intel has de-emphasized “embedded” in favor of “IoT” in the company’s marketing efforts, ADLINK has been capitalizing on advanced connectivity, control and security built into Skylake. Table 1 lists some of these features; the reader can find the definitions on page 4 here.

Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0
Intel Hyper-Threading Technology
Intel Built-in Visuals
Integrated Memory Controller
Intel Smart Cache
Intel Virtualization Technology
Intel Advanced Encryption Standard New Instructions (Intel AES-NI)
Intel Power Optimizer & Processor C-States
CPU/Memory/Graphics Overclocking
Intel Secure Key
Intel Transactional Synchronization Extensions (TXE)
Intel Advanced Vector Extensions 2.02 (Intel AVX2)
Intel OS Guard
VMCS shadowing
Intel Ready Mode Technology
Intel Protection Technology
PCI Express 3.0 Interface

Table 1: Skylake adds some new features for IoT management, connectivity and security.

For its part, ADLINK is adding Skylake to SEMA-enabled embedded and server products wherever it makes sense. ADLINK’s Smart Embedded Management Agent (SEMA) brings device-level access to the company’s products to monitor and control temperature, voltage, power consumption and other key local metrics. Cloud-based remote dashboard and monitoring software also created by ADLINK take advantage of Skylake’s built-in features plus other local embedded sensor and state machine control (Figure 6).

Figure 6: Skylake factors heavily in ADLINK’s SEMA-enabled IoT product line.

Figure 6: Skylake factors heavily in ADLINK’s SEMA-enabled IoT product line.

“IoT device security is especially important,” emphasizes ADLINK’s Finstel. “Users don’t trust software alone” and Skylake’s hardware-side security features such as AES-NI (crypto) and virtualization technology bake in system-level confidence. As ADLINK prepares to launch the balance of the company’s embedded product line over the next few months, Skylake will take center stage.

Intel reached for the sky and took Skylake to the limit. With each subsequent ADLINK announcement, the market learns the best ways to take advantage of Skylake’s—and Intel’s—best-yet features.

This article was sponsored by ADLINK Technology.

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