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.



Intel’s Atom Secret Decoder Ring

Intel’s code names have gotten even more confusing with the new Atom processors.

It used to be that Intel had one code name for a processor family or process technology variant and then the part number SKUs followed easily from that. Haswell, for instance, is the 4th Generation Core family and the SKUs are 4-digit numbers starting with “4″. Ivy Bridge was 3rd Generation with 4-digit SKUs starting with “3″. And so on.

The Atom family has changed all of that and I’m confused as hell. Every time I see a new Atom SKU like “C2000″ or “E3800″ I have to do some research to figure out what the heck it actually is.  For some reason, Intel has split the Atom family into mobile, value desktop, microserver, and SoC versions. I’ve yet to find a comprehensive comparison chart that maps the code names (and former code names) to SKUs, markets, or other useful quick-look info.  The chart probably exists somewhere on the massive Intel website(s) ecosystem. Or in a PowerPoint presentation presented at an overseas conference. Or maybe not.

Here are a few hints, but I won’t even pretend that this is accurate or comprehensive.

The Artist Formerly Known as Bay Trail

Intel tries to demystify this whole naming bug-a-boo with a sort-of useful table called “Products (Formerly Bay Trail)”.

Intel attempts to de-mystify Atom's myriad code names and SKUs. I'm not sure it helps much.

Intel attempts to de-mystify Atom’s myriad code names and SKUs. I’m not sure it helps much because you have to drill down in each instance and there’s no market segment mapping (you’d need the Press Release to do that).

Bay Trail is the newest 22nm Atom designed for mobile, value desktop and the sorts of applications you’d expect Haswell’s baby brother to target. But there are also “Pentium” versions (J and N versions) and Celeron versions (N). Intel is targeting these at desktops, low-end laptops and other “value” platforms that can’t bear the price of Ivy Bridge or Haswell CPUs and chipsets.

Bay Trail Atoms also come in E and Z versions. E38xx was just launched and is called the “SoC” version, is based upon Bay Trail’s Silvermont microarchitecture, and has a TDP of 10W targeting embedded applications. The Z versions are aimed at tablets–exactly the target you’d expect for Intel’s flagship low power CPU.

Atoms to Protect and Server

Then there are the C2000 Atom versions. There are two flavors here, broken down by market segment. They’re all 22nm Atoms, but the C23xx, C25xx and C27xx SKUs target servers–more specifically, the microservers where ARM is making headway. Intel’s got a leadership position in servers with Sandy Bridge (Gen 2), Ivy Bridge (Gen 3), and Haswell (Gen 4) CPUs…plus all manner of heavy weight Xeon server CPUs. So it’s essential to offer a competitive product to whatever ARM and their partners might throw at servers (such as the multi-threaded A53 or single-threaded, deep pipeline A57).

To confuse matters further, there’s the C2000 Atoms targeted at communications platforms. Bizarrely, Intel also calls them–wait for it–C23xx, C25xx, and C27xx. Could they not have changed a few digits around to protect designers’ sanity if only to obviate the need to look them all up?

These Atoms aren’t Bay Trail at all–they’re the former “Avoton” coded Atoms and they’re definitely not aimed at mobile like Bay Trail. As I dug a bit deeper to try to figure this out, more code names like Rangeley popped up. Along with an Avoton block diagram that showed the same Bay Trail Silvermont core surrounded by Avoton I/O resources all labeled “Edisonville”. Avoton? Rangeley? Edisonville?

(Sigh.) At that point I decided to stick with the Bay Trail embedded versions for now and forget about the networking and communications versions before my head exploded. I’ll dig into this again with a fresh perspective and see if I can find a roadmap slide that makes this all clear.

If you can suggest some links–better yet, Intel charts–that stitch the Atom family into all of its permutations please send me a link. I’ll post your name with fanfare and gratitude.

In the meantime, be sure to always check www.ark.intel.com as your first SKU reference. It won’t map part numbers to the all important market segments, but it’s a good start.