Quiz question: I’m an embedded system, but I’m not a smartphone. What am I?

In the embedded market, there are smartphones, automotive, consumer….and everything else. I’ve figured out why AMD’s G-Series SoCs fit perfectly into the “everything else”.

amd-embedded-solutions-g-series-logo-100xSince late 2013 AMD has been talking about their G-Series of Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) x86 devices that mix an Intel-compatible CPU with a discrete-class GPU and a whole pile of peripherals like USB, serial, VGA/DVI/HDMI and even ECC memory. The devices sounded pretty nifty—in either SoC flavor (“Steppe Eagle”) or without the GPU (“Crowned Eagle”). But it was a head-scratcher where they would fit. After-all, we’ve been conditioned by the smartphone market to think that any processor “SoC” that didn’t contain an ARM core wasn’t an SoC.

AMD’s Stephen Turnbull, Director of Marketing, Thin Client markets.

AMD’s Stephen Turnbull, Director of Marketing, Thin Client markets.

Yes, ARM dominates the smartphone market; no surprise there.

But there are plenty of other professional embedded markets that need CPU/GPU/peripherals where the value proposition is “Performance per dollar per Watt,” says AMD’s Stephen Turnbull, Director of Marketing, Thin Clients. In fact, AMD isn’t even targeting the smartphone market, according to General Manager Scott Aylor in his many presentations to analysts and the financial community.

AMD instead targets systems that need “visual compute”: which is any business-class embedded system that mixes computation with single- or multi-display capabilities at a “value price”. What this really means is: x86-class processing—and all the goodness associated with the Intel ecosystem—plus one or more LCDs. Even better if those LCDs are high-def, need 3D graphics or other fancy rendering, and if there’s industry-standard software being run such as OpenCL, OpenGL, or DirectX. AMD G-Series SoCs run from 6W up to 25W; the low end of this range is considered very power thrifty.

What AMD’s G-Series does best is cram an entire desktop motherboard and peripheral I/O, plus graphics card onto a single 28nm geometry SoC. Who needs this? Digital signs—where up to four LCDs make up the whole image—thin clients, casino gaming, avionics displays, point-of-sale terminals, network-attached-storage, security appliances, and oh so much more.

G-Series SoC on the top with peripheral IC for I/O on the bottom.

G-Series SoC on the top with peripheral IC for I/O on the bottom.

According to AMD’s Turnbull, the market for thin client computers is growing at 6 to 8 percent CAGR (per IDC), and “AMD commands over 50 percent share of market in thin clients.” Recent design wins with Samsung, HP and Fujitsu validate that using a G-Series SoC in the local box provides more-than-ample horsepower for data movement, encryption/decryption of central server data, and even local on-the-fly video encode/decode for Skype or multimedia streaming.

Typical use cases include government offices where all data is server-based, bank branch offices, and “even classroom learning environments, where learning labs standardize content, monitor students and centralize control of the STEM experience,” says AMD’s Turnbull.

Samsung LFDs (large format displays) use AMD R-Series APUs for flexible display features, like sending content to multiple displays via a network. (Courtesy: Samsung.)

Samsung LFDs (large format displays) use AMD APUs for flexible display features, like sending content to multiple displays via a network. (Courtesy: Samsung.)

But what about other x86 processors in these spaces? I’m thinking about various SKUs from Intel such as their recent Celeron and Pentium M offerings (which are legacy names but based on modern versions of Ivy Bridge and Haswell architectures) and various Atom flavors in both dual- and quad-core colors. According to AMD’s  published literature, G-Series SoC’s outperform dual-core Atoms by 2x (multi-display) or 3x (overall performance) running industry-standard benchmarks for standard and graphics computation.

And then there’s that on-board GPU. If AMD’s Jaguar-based CPU core isn’t enough muscle, the system can load-balance (in performance and power) to move algorithm-heavy loads to the GPU for General Purpose GPU (GPGPU) number crunching. This is the basis for AMD’s efforts to bring the Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) spec to the world. Even companies like TI and ARM have jumped onto this one for their own heterogeneous processors.

G-Series: more software than hardware.

G-Series: more software than hardware.

In a nutshell, after two years of reading about (and writing about) AMD’s G-Series SoCs, I’m beginning to “get religion” that the market isn’t all about smartphone processors. Countless business-class embedded systems need Intel-compatible processing, multiple high-res displays, lots of I/O, myriad industry-standard software specs…and all for a price/Watt that doesn’t break the bank.

So the answer to the question posed in the title above is simply this: I’m a visually-oriented embedded system. And I’m everywhere.

This blog was sponsored by AMD.



PCI Express Switch: the “Power Strip” of IC Design

Need more PCIe channels in your next board design? Add a PCIe switch for more fanout.

Editor’s notes:

1. Despite the fact that Pericom Semiconductor sponsors this particular blog post, your author learns that he actually knows very little about the complexities of PCIe.

2. Blog updated 3-27-14 to correct the link to Pericom P/N PI7C9X2G303EL.

Perhaps you’re like me; power cords everywhere. Anyone who has more than one mobile doodad—from smartphone to iPad to Kindle and beyond—is familiar with the ever-present power strip.

An actual power strip from under my desk. Scary...

An actual power strip from under my desk. Scary…

The power strip is a modern version of the age-old extension cord: it expands one wall socket into three, five or more.  Assuming there’s enough juice (AC amperage) to power it all, the power strip meets our growing hunger for more consumer devices (or rather: their chargers).


And so it is with IC design. PCI Express Gen 2 has become the most common interoperable, on-board way to add peripherals such as SATA ports, CODECs, GPUs, WiFi chipsets, USB hubs and even legacy peripherals like UARTs. The wall socket analogy applies here too: most new CPUs, SoCs, MCUs or system controllers lack sufficient PCI Express (PCIe) ports for all the peripheral devices designers need. Plus, as IC geometries shrink, system controllers also have lower drive capability per PCIe port and signals degrade rather quickly.

The solution to these host controller problems is a PCIe switch to increase fanout by adding two, three, or even eight additional PCIe ports with ample per-lane current sourcing capability.

Any Port in a Storm?

While our computers and laptops strangle everything in sight with USB cables, inside those same embedded boxes it’s PCIe as the routing mechanism of choice. Just about any standalone peripheral a system designer could want is available with a PCIe interface. Even esoteric peripherals—such as 4K complex FFT, range-finding, or OFDM algorithm IP blocks—usually come with a PCIe 2.0 interface.

Too bad then that modern device/host controllers are painfully short on PCIe ports. I did a little Googling and found that if you choose an Intel or AMD CPU, you’re in good shape. A 4th Gen Intel Core i7 with Intel 8 Series Chipset has six PCIe 2.0 ports spread across 12 lanes. Wow. Similarly, an AMD A10 APU has four PCIe (1x as x4, or 4x as x1). But these are desktop/laptop processors and they’re not so common in embedded.

AMD’s new G-Series SoC for embedded is an APU with a boatload of peripherals and it’s got only one PCIe Gen 2 port (x4). As for Intel’s new Bay Trail-based Atom processors running the latest red-hot laptop/tablet 2:1’s:  I couldn’t find an external PCIe port on the block diagram.

Similarly…Qualcomm Snapdragon 800? Nvidia Tegra 4 or even the new K1? Datasheets on these devices are closely held for customers only but I found Developer References that point to at best one PCIe port. ARM-based Freescale processors such as the i.MX6, popular in set-top boxes from Comcast and others have one lone PCIe 2.0 port (Figure 1).

What to do if a designer wants to add more PCIe-based stuff?

Figure 1: Freescale i.MX ARM-based CPU is loaded with peripheral I/O, yet has only one PCIe 2.0 port. (Courtesy: Freescale Semiconductor.)

Figure 1: Freescale i.MX ARM-based CPU is loaded with peripheral I/O, yet has only one PCIe 2.0 port. (Courtesy: Freescale Semiconductor.)

‘Mo Fanout

A PCIe switch solves the one-to-many dilemma. Add in a redriver at the Tx and Rx end, and signal integrity problems over long traces and connectors all but disappear. Switches from companies like Pericom come in many flavors, from simple lane switches that are essentially PCIe muxes, to packet switches with intelligent routing functions.

One simple example of a Pericom PCIe switch is the PI7C9X2G303EL. This PCIe 2.0 three port/three lane switch has one x1 Up and two x1 Down and would add two ports to the i.MX6 shown in Figure 1. This particular device, aimed at those low power consumer doodads I mentioned earlier, boasts some advanced power saving modes and consumes under 0.7W.

Hook Me Up

Upon researching this for Pericom, I was surprised to learn of all the nuances and variables to consider with PCIe switches. I won’t cover them here, other than mentioning some of the designer’s challenges: PCIe Gen 1 vs Gen 2, data packet routing, latency, CRC verification (for QoS), TLP layer inspection, auto re-send, and so on.

It seems that PCIe switches seem to come in all flavors, from the simplest “power strip”, to essentially an intelligent router-on-a-chip. And for maximum interoperability, of them need to be compliant to the PCI-SIG specs as verified by a plugfest.

So if you’re an embedded designer, the solution to your PCIe fanout problem is adding a PCI Express switch. 

Intel vs GM: What’s In Store for Intel’s New CEO, President

Today chip giant Intel announced outgoing CEO Paul Otellini’s replacement: he’s Brian Krzanich, former Intel COO and likely an Intel lifer. As Otellini bids goodbye at the annual stockholders’ meeting on May 16, Krzanich moves in as the company’s sixth CEO since founding.

Intel's CEO-elect, former COO Brian Krzanich

Intel’s CEO-elect, former COO Brian Krzanich

Krzanich (52) is about my age and has been with the company since 1982. Although I didn’t do a resume search on the man, I’ll bet he joined Intel shortly after college and has been there his whole career. That worries me: not because of his skill set which is undoubtedly exemplary, but because Intel’s challenges in the post-PC era are so acute that they need an outsider’s view of things, despite having so many awesome technology advantages.

The Intel Advantage, as shown at IDF 2012, includes hardware, software, partnerships, and a killer ecosystem.

The Intel Advantage, as shown at IDF 2012, includes hardware, software, partnerships, and a killer ecosystem.

Using GM as a warning example, all those years of “Roger and Me” insider management bred complacency, NIH, and too much familiarity at GM. It’s only now, post TARP government bailout that General Motors is getting into fighting trim again (although the European Opel division admittedly remains an anomaly).

One of Intel's many IC announcements at IDF 2012, preparing for Haswell.

One of Intel’s many IC announcements at IDF 2012, preparing for Haswell.

Still, I’m a big fan of Intel and I routinely write glowing articles about the company’s incredible Core i5/i7 CPUs, limited successes in smartphones, OSes like Tizen, or broad initiatives like HTML5 in IVI automotive. But they’ve missed the boat on embedded, are playing catch-up in smartphones, and have yet to publicly unveil a low power processor roadmap that’s comparable to ARM. Even on-the-ropes AMD has doubled down in embedded by announcing at DESIGN West new APU SoCs (x86 CPU + Radeon GPU + Southbridge peripherals).

Renee James becomes Prez

Intel's new president Renee James, shown here at IDF 2012 wowing the crowd with new software ecosystem announcements.

Intel’s new president Renee James, shown here at IDF 2012 wowing the crowd with new software ecosystem announcements.

As Intel made public their new CEO, the announcement also said that Renee James becomes the company’s president. Ms. James has run the company’s huge (and growing) software group and also oversees the McAfee and Wind River subsidiaries. I like Renee a lot and am pleased at the many successes unveiled under her leadership: Yocto, Tizen, HTML5, third party programs, multicore development tools, and so on. Clearly she understands that complex hardware like Core i7 CPUs needs equally sophisticated software. One tiny successful example is how Intel and Microsoft are working together to wring more power savings out of Windows machines.

So in Renee I am confident; in Mr. Krzanich I have high hopes that he’ll break the trend of predictable Intel behavior and instead act like an outsider and do what’s necessary. That is: shake things up by recognizing the market is embedded, the competition is ARM, and that Intel needs to get cracking. On both fronts, Intel has a bit of catching up to do.

Like today’s General Motors, Intel is extremely credible and very capable of pulling a hat trick. Their process technology is second to none (ask Altera), all the IC and hardware designers I’ve ever met are brilliant, and the company has tons of software IP on which to build a winning strategy and embedded product portfolio.

1960 Chevrolet Corvair. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1960_Chevrolet_Corvair.JPG)

1960 Chevrolet Corvair. (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:1960_Chevrolet_Corvair.JPG)

Intel will win if they ditch a few “unsafe at any speed” Corvairs and give the market what it really wants: another 1969 Z28 (in yellow with 4-wheel discs, thank you). I’ll instead take my next smartphone with Intel SoC in SS Trim and Nokia yellow.

AMD’s Single Chip Embedded SoC: Upward and to the Right

Monolithic AMD embedded G Series SoCs combine x86 multicore, Radeon graphics, and a Southbridge. It’s one-stop-shopping, and it’s a flood targeting Intel again.

AMD arrow logoThe little arrow-like “a” AMD logo once represented an “upward and to right” growth strategy, back in the 1980s as the company was striving for $1.0B and I worked there just out of university.

In 2013, AMD is focusing on the embedded market with a vengeance and it’s “upward and to the right” again. The stated target is for AMD to grow embedded revenues from 5% in Q3 2012 to 20% of the total by Q4 2013. Wow. I’m excited about the company’s prospects, though I know they’ve had decades of false starts or technology successes that were later to sold off in favor of their personal war with Intel for PC dominance. (Flash memories and Vantis? The first DSP telephone modem Am7910? Telecom line cards? Alchemy “StrongMIPS”? All gone.)

Know what? PCs are in the tank right now, embedded is the market, and AMD might just be better positioned than Intel. They’re certainly saying all the right things. Take this week’s DESIGN West announcement of the new embedded G Series “SoCs”. Two years ago AMD invented the term Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) as a differentiated x86 CPU with an ATI GPU.

An AMD Accelerated Processing Unit merges a multicore x86 CPU with a Radeon GPU.

An AMD Accelerated Processing Unit merges a multicore x86 CPU with a Radeon GPU.

This week’s news is how the APU mind-melds with all of the traditional x86 Southbridge I/O to become a System-on-Chip (SoC).

The AMD G Series “SoC” does more real estate slight-of-hand by eliminating the Southbridge to bring all peripherals on-board the APU.

The AMD G Series “SoC” does more real estate slight-of-hand by eliminating the Southbridge to bring all peripherals on-board the APU.

The G Series SoCs meld AMD’s latest 28 nm quad-core “Jaguar” with the ATI Radeon 8000 series GPU and claim a 113 percent CPU and 20 percent GPU performance jump. More importantly, the single-chip SoC concept reduces footprint by 33 percent by eliminating a whole IC. On-board peripherals are HDMI/DVI/LVDS/VGA, PCIe, USB 2.0/3.0, SATA 2.x/3.x, SPI, SD card reader interface, and more. You know, the kind of stuff you’d expect in an all-in-one.

Available in 2- and 4-core flavors, the G Series SoC saves up to 33% board real estate, and even drives dual displays and high-res.

Available in 2- and 4-core flavors, the G Series SoC saves up to 33% board real estate, and even drives dual displays and high-res.

AMD is clearly setting their sites on embedded, and Intel is once again in the crosshairs. The company claims a 3x (218 percent) overall performance advantage with the GX-415GA SKU (quad core, 1.5 GHz, 2 MB L2) over Intel’s Atom D525 running Sandra Engineering 2011 Dhrystone ALU, Sandra Engineering 2011 Whetstone iSSE3, and other benchmarks such as those from EEMBC. Although AMD’s talking trash about the Atom, they’re disclosing all of their benchmarks, the hardware they were run on, and the OS assumptions. (The only thing that maybe seems hinky to me is that the respective motherboards use 4 GB DRAM (AMD) versus 1 GB DRAM (Intel).)

AMD CPU performance graph 1

And then there’s the built-in ECC which targets critical applications such as military, medical, financial, and casino gaming. The single-chip SoC is also designed ground-up to run -40 to +85C (operation) and will fit the bill in many rugged, defense, and medical applications requiring really good horsepower and graphics performance. Fan-less designs are the sweet spot with a 9W to 25W TDP, with all I/O’s blazing. Your mileage may vary, and AMD claims a much-better-than-Intel Performance-per-Watt number of 19 vs 9 as shown below. There are more family members to follow, some with sub 9W power consumption. Remember, that’s for CPU+GPU+Peripherals combined. Again, read the fine print.

AMD performance per Watt 1

I’m pretty enthused about AMD’s re-entry into the embedded market. Will Intel counter with something similar? Maybe not, but their own ultra low power Atom-based SoCs are winning smartphone designs left and right and have plenty of horsepower to run MPEG4 decode, DRM, and dual screen displays a la Apple’s AirPlay. So it’s game on, boys and girls.

The AMD vs Intel battle has always been good for the entire industry as it has “lifted all boats”. Here’s to a flood of new devices in embedded.



Intel Gets Smart with Smartphones

The 15 year anniversary of Intel’s Developers Forum kicked off with a somewhat predictable keynote by Dadi Perlmutter, EVP/GM Intel Architecture Group (Figure 1). We’re so used to Intel hitting it out of the park that the astounding messages bordered on ho-hum: reminding the audience of the pervasiveness of mobile computing; the morphing of the (not-yet-successful) Ultrabook segment into tablets, slates, and convertible variants; Windows8 and touch, gesture, and voice computing; next year’s Haswell 22nm microarchitecture; and a brief mention of future Atom variants. What is 100 percent certain is that Intel’s server (Xeon), desktop and laptop (3rd and soon 4th generation Core) processors will be amazing technology machines that are better than anything available today. And you’ll want one just as soon as they begin shipping in Q12013 because they’ll be cool. Literally.

Figure 1: Intel’s Dadi Perlmutter, EVP/GM Intel Architecture Group opens Day 1 of IDF 2012.

But what was most interesting is what Mr. Perlmutter didn’t say that the whole audience wanted to hear: What’s Intel’s roadmap in low-power, portable devices like smartphones and tablets? He offered only that the “First Wave” of Intel Inside smartphones is now available (Figure 2), with more on the way.

Turns out Intel is like an iceberg with only a bit showing above the waterline. The company merged the Core and Atom design teams this year, emphasizing both the need to focus on low power and SoC solutions, and to solidify the Haswell architecture’s “roadmap-ability” to scale up to server-class performance, while down to low-leakage, high-K power-sipping sleep modes. Five cell phone wins have been announced, all based upon the SoC Atom Z2460 1.6 GHz Medfield platform (Saltwell core): Lenovo, ZTE, Megafon, LAVA and Orange. They all run Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich – one revision behind the latest Jelly Bean – except for the Lava which runs 2.3. According to an Intel spokesperson, all are loosely based upon the company’s Smartphone Reference Design , but the Lava most closely resembles the original Intel specs.

Figure 2: Intel announced five smartphone wins at IDF, all based upon the Medfield Atom SoC and Saltwell core.

The Lava XOLO X900, sold in India, uses the Z2460 with Hyper-threading, has 16 GB of NV storage and 1 GB of RAM, and drives a 4.03-inch screen at 1024 x 600 with Intel’s 400 MHz Media Graphics Accelerator running OpenGL ES 2.0 with OpenVG 1.1 support. Its 1460 mAh battery is on the small side but similar to the iPhone 4s (allegedly 1432 mAh), but “should last 6-8 hours”. The China-destined Lenovo, on the other hand uses the same Atom SoC and graphics chip, but the 4.5-inch screen displays 720p content. The phone uses a 1900 mAh battery.

Figure 3: Who knew Intel made modems? The family – available in multiple form factors – originally came from the 2010 Infineon Wireless acquisition.

The other Intel surprise was their wireless modem family (Figure 3), spawned by the 2010 acquisition of Infineon’s wireless group. The company offers modem ICs, dongles, and cores for integration into their own (future) SoCs. The XMM family has a variety of flavors; all five of the smartphones displayed at IDF use Intel’s XMM 6260 HSPA+ 21 Mbits/s down/5.8 Mbit/s up modem. Designed for 2G/3G networks, multimode “Penta-band” support works with multiple worldwide standards: GSM, GPRS, and EDGE (850/900/1800/1900); and HSPA (850/900/1700/1900/2100). These are mixed signal solutions, combining digital and analog baseband in what Intel calls X-GOLD. No small technical feat.

Intel also has a roadmap strategy for “feature phones” (those candy bar phones popularized by Nokia) for the huge portion of the non-connected world that sees no need for a smartphone. Atom SoCs and modems are available for this slice of the mobile market, too.

So the part of the iceberg floating below the water that is publicly visible – Medfield SoCs and mixed signal 3G modems – is hugely impressive and clearly shows Intel’s commitment to low power mobile devices. And these are only the “First Wave”. Clearly Intel knows how to integrate smartphone peripherals, perform baseband signal processing, accelerate and decode/transcode HD graphics, and make a pretty decent low-power smartphone. With Intel writing the Intel Architecture BSP and native code on Android for Google (one of last year’s IDF announcements), the company is well positioned to smartly get into the smartphone game. The Haswell microarchitecture should ratchet down power by 20 times at the system level, said Permutter. We’re anxious to see it applied to the Atom roadmap in the Silvermont microarchitecture.

It’s about time.