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 “Beefy” APUs Bulk Up Thin Clients for HP, Samsung

There are times when a tablet is too light, and a full desktop too much. The answer? A thin client PC powered by an AMD APU.

Note: this blog is sponsored by AMD.

A desire to remotely access my Mac and Windows machines from somewhere else got me thinking about thin client architectures. A thin “client” machine has sufficient processing for local storage and display—plus keyboard, mouse and other I/O—and is remotely connected to a more beefy “host” elsewhere. The host may be in the cloud or merely somewhere else on a LAN, sometimes intentionally inaccessible for security reasons.

Thin client architectures—or just “thin clients”—find utility in call centers, kiosks, hospitals, “smart” monitors and TVs, military command posts and other multi-user, virtualized installations. At times they’ve been characterized as low performance or limited in functionality, but that’s changing quickly.

They’re getting additional processing and graphics capability thanks to AMD’s G-Series and A-Series Accelerated Processing Units (APUs). By some analysts, AMD is number one in thin clients and the company keeps winning designs with its highly integrated x86 plus Radeon graphics SoCs: most recently with HP and Samsung.

HP’s t420 and mt245 Thin Clients

HP’s ENERGY STAR certified t420 is a fanless thin client for call centers, Desktop-as-a-service and remote kiosk environments (Figure 1). Intended to mount on the back of a monitor such as the company’s ProDisplays (like you see at the doctor’s office), the unit runs HP’s ThinPro 32 or Smart Zero Core 32 operating system, has either 802.11n Wi-Fi or Gigabit Ethernet, 8 GB of Flash and 2 GB of DDR3L SDRAM.

Figure 1: HP’s t420 thin client is meant for call centers and kiosks, mounted to a smart LCD monitor. (Courtesy: HP.)

Figure 1: HP’s t420 thin client is meant for call centers and kiosks, mounted to a smart LCD monitor. (Courtesy: HP.)

USB ports for keyboard and mouse supplement the t420’s dual display capability (DVI-D  and VGA)—made possible by AMD’s dual-core GX-209JA running at 1 GHz.

Says AMD’s Scott Aylor, corporate vice president and general manager, AMD Embedded Solutions: “The AMD Embedded G-Series SoC couples high performance compute and graphics capability in a highly integrated low power design. We are excited to see innovative solutions like the HP t420 leverage our unique technologies to serve a broad range of markets which require the security, reliability and low total cost of ownership offered by thin clients.”

The whole HP thin client consumes a mere 45W and according to StorageReview.com, will retail for $239.

Along the lines of a lightweight mobile experience, HP has also chosen AMD for their mt245 Mobile Thin Client (Figure 2). The thin client “cloud computer” resembles a 14-inch (1366 x 768 resolution) laptop with up to 4GB of SDRAM and a 16 GB SSD, the unit runs Windows Embedded Standard 7P 64 on AMD’s quad core A6-6310 APU with Radeon R4 GPU. There are three USB ports, 1 VGA and 1 HDMI, plus Ethernet and optional Wi-Fi.

Figure 2: HP’s mt245 is a thin client mobile machine, targeting healthcare, education, and more. (Courtesy: HP.)

Figure 2: HP’s mt245 is a thin client mobile machine, targeting healthcare, education, and more. (Courtesy: HP.)

Like the t420, the mt245 consumes a mere 45W and is intended for employee mobility but is configured for a thin client environment. AMD’s director of thin client product management, Stephen Turnbull says the mt245 targets “a whole range of markets, including education and healthcare.”

At the core of this machine, pun intended, is the Radeon GPU that provides heavy-lifting graphics performance. The mt245 can not only take advantage of virtualized cloud computing, but has local moxie to perform graphics-intensive applications like 3D rendering. Healthcare workers might, for example, examine ultrasound images. Factory technicians could pull up assembly drawings, then rotate them in CAD-like software applications.

Samsung Cloud Displays

An important part of Samsung’s displays business involves “smart” displays, monitors and televisions. Connected to the cloud or operating autonomously as a panel PC, many Samsung displays need local processing such as that provided by AMD’s APUs.

Samsung’s recently announced (June 17, 2015) 21.5-inch TC222W and 23.6-inch TC242W also use AMD G-Series devices in thin client architectures. The dual core 2.2 GHz GX222 with Radeon HD6290 powers both displays at 1920 x 1080 (HD) and provides six USB ports, Ethernet, and runs Windows Embedded 7 out of 4GB of RAM and 32 GB of SSD.

Figure 3: Samsung’s Cloud Displays also rely on AMD G-Series APUs.

Figure 3: Samsung’s Cloud Displays also rely on AMD G-Series APUs.

Said Seog-Gi Kim, senior vice president, Visual Display Business, Samsung Electronics, “Samsung’s powerful Windows Thin Client Cloud displays combine professional, ergonomic design with advanced thin-client technology.” The displays rely on the company’s Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) through a centrally managed data center that increases data security and control (Figure 3). Applications include education, business, healthcare, hospitality or any environment that requires virtualized security with excellent local processing and graphics.

Key to the design wins is the performance density of the G-Series APUs, coupled with legacy x86 software interoperability. The APUs–for both HP and Samsung–add more beef to thin clients.

 

End of an embedded era: Emerson De-”Mots” Motorola Embedded

As Emerson Network Power gets sold off to Platinum Equity, Motorola Computer Group, Force Computer, Artesyn, and more names may disappear into the history books soon.

8/7/13 UPDATE: Several people have commented that the napkin analysis below neglects to account for the “power” side of Emerson Network Power. ENP was also partly assembled via acquisition including: Astec, Liebert, and others. A comment also was sent to me saying “The embedded power unit has been on the market for a buyer for quite some time…”  Finally, there are some questions raised about the size of the open standard ATCA/xTCA markets, with one person agreeing with my statement that the telcos are successfully using the standards to build their own hardware. This would reduce the TAM for non-captive vendors like Emerson Network Power. Thank you to all who corresponded with me privately.  C2

 

Emerson today announced plans to sell 51 percent of Emerson Network Power to Platinum Equity for $300 million. It’s a shame, for sure. But what’s equally interesting are the embedded technologies and their creators leaving the Emerson camp, and how we got to this place.

Embedded Consolidation by Acquisition

Emerson Network Power became the $1.4 billion business it is today partly by acquiring Motorola Embedded Communications Computing in 2007 for $350 million, when ECC’s turnover was about $520 million (2006). The sale closed in 2008.

Perhaps a bargain for Emerson at the time, in the interest of buying “embedded computing products and services to equipment manufacturers in telecommunications, medical imaging, defense and aerospace and industrial automation,” wrote the St. Louis Business Journal at the time. Motorola’s $520 million in sales was added to Artesyn’s $100 million embedded computing business, acquired by Emerson Network Power the year prior, adding up to over $600 million in revenue 2007.

Just three years prior, Motorola was then called “Motorola Computer Group” (MCG) and had acquired the then-heavyweight Force Computers from board-stuffer Solectron. The terms of the agreement were not immediately disclosed, but I was able to ferret the price of $121 million from a footnote on page 47 of Moto’s 2004 10K here. Interestingly, it was slightly prior to this when Motorola spun off their semiconductor operations to Freescale Semiconductor, a separate financial entity at the time. The combined MCG and Force division became known as Motorola Embedded Communications Computing and was all about standards-based telecom and military products like VME, AdvancedTCA, and so on. But mostly about the telcom-focused AdvancedTCA (ATCA).

If you’re following the math, the cumulative total of acquisitions for these embedded technologies was about $721 million to this point. As I recall, Force didn’t belong to Solectron for very long; less than two years, I think. MCG + Force = Moto ECC added up to about 1,500 employees in August 2004, said the press release at the time. The division’s corporate vice president, Wendy Vittori (previously of Dell Computer if memory serves), said at the time: “We will be able to provide solutions for a wider range of customer application needs, supported by a broader portfolio of boards, systems, and services.”

Moto was number one in VME, although they’d ceded the rugged mil/aero market to the likes of Dy4 Systems (later Curtiss-Wright), Radstone, and SBS (both later part of GE Intelligent Platforms) in the late 1990s. Motorola lead the non-mil market with Motorola’s/Freescale’s own PowerPC-based single board computers, whereas Force had leadership in Intel-based SBCs and broader networking products. Wendy was right: it was a pretty decent technology fit, and Motorola was at that time already parlaying their embedded products into the data center and telecom. A year prior, in 2003, Motorola acquired NetPlane Systems, a telecom provider with data and control plane products…and captive customers.

When the Emerson/Motorola deal closed in 2008, an Emerson press release quoted several analysts praising the acquisition. It also said “A significant trend in the embedded computing industry is the adoption of industry standards, including ATCA, MicroTCA and AdvancedMC (AMC/xTCA)…currently more than 40 percent of network equipment providers are shipping ATCA-based systems.”

Present Tense

So far so good. In fact, I’ve followed the industry closely and agree that wired and wireless infrastructure build-outs continue to favor these embedded open standards-based products, and ATCA et al have replaced proprietary telecom equipment. Emerson Network Power’s VME business, I suspect, never recovered since the market for VME (and now the VXS and VPX variants) is almost entirely in defense. (Recall that Motorola walked away from that business ten years ago.) That leaves ATCA, xTCA targeting the telecom markets.

As recently as two months ago (May 2013), the head of the PICMG standards group responsible for ATCA, xTCA and AMC told me how well the telecom markets were growing. You can read my interview with Joe Pavlat here, where Joe estimated the market for ATCA at somewhere between $1.5 billion and 2.5 billion per year.

What happened?

In February 2013 Emerson’s CEO David Farr went on record with Fortune magazine as saying he wants to “double down in businesses that help manufacturers produce their wares” and to focus on cooling products (like air conditioners and chillers for data centers).

This might explain why Emerson would opt to leave this business along with Emerson’s pre-Motorola power business. The press release issued today cites the group’s revenue at $1.4 billion in 2012, probably less than the cumulative total of the price in real dollars of all those acquisitions if you linearize them from 2008. In fact, the group should probably be selling over $2 billion to achieve the correct ROI on all of those acquisitions, but that bumps up against the ATCA TAM cited above by Joe Pavlat of PIGMG. Did Emerson run out of ATCA runway?

That possibly explains the $300 million purchase price for 51 percent, making the overall sale roughly 50 cents on the dollar of last year’s gross sales. That also puts years’ worth of leading-edge VME, control plane, data plane, networking IP, ATCA, xTCA and other embedded technology up for sale by Platinum Equity. Or maybe not.

Sell it, or Keep it?

Who might want this technology? If you assume that no Emerson Network Power customers will be lost in the process (CapEx equipment is not quickly designed out), Emerson’s competitors like Radisys, Kontron, IBM, Dell, and HP already have their own (open-standard) hardware. My bet is that the key value will be any proprietary IP owned by Emerson plus customer relationships (read: backlog). Yet I can not think of a single open-market company that would want to buy this technology that doesn’t already have the core technology. So why buy it?

But Platinum may own a core company that needs Emerson’s technology for themselves: perhaps a telco or wireless provider who wants to produce their own ATCA equipment and not buy it on the open market. This certainly is a viable strategy for a mere $300 million (to start) to buy a multi-billion dollar telecommunications outfit. When asked to comment on this story, PICMG’s Joe Pavlat said: “Platinum Equity is extremely well regarded and has several other significant telecom investments that, at first glance, appear to be very complementary to the Emerson offerings.” Bingo.

So it may be the end of an era–when companies like Motorola, Force, Artesyn, NetPlane–created and implemented open standards-based embedded computers for the telecommunications industry. Hopefully these names and their creations will live on at another recognizable open standards company. But I’m not hopeful; I suspect they’re gone forever and de-Mot’ed  to the history books.