Intel Changes Course–And What a Change!

By Chris A. Ciufo, Editor, Embedded Intel Solutions

5 bullets explain Intel’s recent drastic course correction.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (Photo by author, IDF 2015.)

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (Photo by author, IDF 2015.)

I recently opined on the amazing technology gifts Intel has given the embedded industry as the company approaches its 50th anniversary. Yet a few weeks later, the company released downward financials and announced layoffs, restructurings, executive changes and new strategies. Here are five key points from the recent news-storm of (mostly) negative coverage.

1. Layoffs.

Within days of the poor financial news, Intel CEO Brian Krzanich (“BK”) announced that 12,000 loyal employees would have to go. As the event unfolded over a few days, the pain was felt throughout Intel: from the Oregon facility where its IoT Intelligent Gateway strategy resides, to its design facilities in Israel and Ireland, to older fabs in places like New Mexico. Friends of mine at Intel have either been let go or are afraid for their jobs. This is the part about tech—and it’s not limited to Intel, mind you—that I hate the most. Sometimes it feels like a sweatshop where workers are treated poorly. (Check out the recent story concerning BiTMICRO Networks, which really did treat its workers poorly.)

2. Atom family: on its way out. 

This story broke late on the Friday night after the financial news—it was almost as if the company hadn’t planned on talking about it so quickly. But the bottom line is that the Atom never achieved all the goals Intel set out for it: lower price, lower power and a spot in handheld. Of course, much is written about Intel’s failure to wrest more than a token slice out of ARM’s hegemony in mobile. (BTW: that term “hegemony” used to be applied to Intel’s dominance in PCs. Sigh.) Details are still scant, but the current Atom Bay Trail architecture works very nicely, and I love my Atom-based Win8.1 Asus 2:1 with it. But the next Atom iteration (Apollo Lake) looks like the end of the line. Versions of Atom may live on under other names like Celeron and Pentium (though some of these may also be Haswell or Skylake versions).

3. New pillars announced.

Intel used to use the term “pillars” for its technology areas, and BK has gone to great lengths to list the new ones as: Data Center (aka: Xeon); Memory (aka: Flash SSDs and the Optane, 3D XPoint Intel/Micro joint venture); FPGAs (aka: Altera, eventually applied to Xeon co-accelerators); IoT (aka: what Intel used to call embedded); and 5G (a modem technology the company doesn’t really have yet). Mash-ups of these pillars include some of the use cases Intel is showing off today, such as wearables, medical, drones (apparently a personal favorite of BK), RealSense camera, and smart automobiles including self-driving cars. (Disclosure: I contracted to Intel in 2013 pertaining to the automotive market.)

 Intel’s new pillars, according to CEO Brian Krzanich. 5G modems are included in “Connectivity.” Not shown is “Moore’s Law,” which Intel must continue to push to be competitive.

Intel’s new pillars, according to CEO Brian Krzanich. 5G modems are included in “Connectivity.” Not shown is “Moore’s Law,” which Intel must continue to push to be competitive.

4. Tick-tock goodbye.

For many years, Intel has set the benchmark for process technology and made damn sure Moore’s Law was followed. The company’s cadence of new architecture (Tock) followed by process shrink (Tick) predictably streamed products that found their way into PCs, laptops, the data center (now “cloud” and soon “fog”). But as Intel approached 22nm, it got harder and harder to keep up the pace as CMOS channel dimensions approached Angstroms (inter-atomic distances). The company has now officially retired Tick-Tock in favor of a three-step process of Architecture, Process, and Process tuning. This is in fact where the company is today as the Core series evolved from 4th-gen (Haswell) to 5th-gen (Broadwell—a sort-of interim step) to the recent 6th-gen (Skylake). Skylake is officially a “Tock,” but if you work backwards, it’s kind of a fine-tuned process improvement with new features such as really good graphics, although AnandTech and others lauded Broadwell’s graphics. The next product—Kaby Lake (just “leaked” last week, go figure)—looks to be another process tweak. Now-public specs point to even better graphics, if the data can be believed.

Intel is arguably the industry’s largest software developer, and second only to Google when it comes to Android. (Photo by author, IDF 2015.)

Intel is arguably the industry’s largest software developer, and second only to Google when it comes to Android. (Photo by author, IDF 2015.)

5. Embedded, MCUs, and Value-Add.

This last bullet is my prediction of how Intel is going to climb back out of the rut. Over the years the company mimicked AMD and nearly singularly focused on selling x86 CPUs and variants (though it worked tirelessly on software like PCIe, WiDi, Android, USB Type-C and much more). It jettisoned value-add MCUs like the then-popular 80196 16-bitter with A/D and 8751EPROM-based MCU—conceding all of these products to companies like Renesas (Hitachi), Microchip (PIC series), and Freescale (ARM and Power-based MCUs, originally for automotive). Yet Intel can combine scads of its technology—including modems, WiFi (think: Centrino), PCIe, and USB)—into intelligent peripherals for IoT end nodes. Moreover, the company’s software arsenal even beats IBM (I’ll wager) and Intel can apply the x86 code base and tool set to dozens of new products. Or, they could just buy Microchip or Renesas or Cypress.

It pains me to see Intel layoff people, retrench, and appear to fumble around. I actually do think it is shot-gunning things just a bit right now, and officially giving up on developing low-power products for smartphones. Yet they’ll need low power for IoT nodes, too, and I don’t know that Quark and Curie are going to cut it. Still: I have faith. BK is hell-fire-brimstone motivated, and the company is anything but stupid. Time to pick a few paths and stay the course.

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.

 

 

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.