Six Things to Know about Processors for Your Embedded Designs
…because knowledge is power and (especially in the IoT era) ultra-low power takes knowledge.
One. Performance Efficiency Is an Architectural Choice
There’s a fundamental difference between designing a processor for all-out speed versus performance efficiency, and that decision gets made early on. This intent must be captured at the micro-architectural level; it’s not a simple implementation tweak in a processor that’s been first and foremost designed for maximum performance. Developers of embedded devices put a premium on power and area because their products are often battery powered or constrained in cost (which relates to both silicon area and power consumption). For example, Synopsys ARC processors are optimized first for efficiency, which means packing as much performance in a limited power and area budget as possible. ARC architectural features, such as the ability to tightly couple peripherals and create custom instructions to more efficiently process specific software algorithms, are unique in the industry and can lower energy consumption by orders of magnitude.
Two. Mobile is Not A Single Homogeneous Market
It’s important to understand that mobile is a broad market segment that includes many kinds of devices, from navigation systems to gaming devices to digital cameras to smartphones and tablets. Most of these products contain multiple processors, the most well known of which is the applications processor. Yet every SoC with an apps processor has many other “smaller” CPUs and DSPs doing offload tasks like sensor and audio processing, I/O control, power management, encryption/decryption, etc. ARC has enjoyed success in these types of embedded applications.
Three. Processors are Evolving Right Along with the IoT
ARC processors’ low power consumption is ideally suited for IoT and have had strong adoption in this segment. Consequently we pay very close attention to the evolving requirements for IoT—by talking to existing and future customers, working with ecosystem partners and studying broader market trend data—and adjust product roadmaps accordingly. For example, the amount of sensor data to be processed in always-on IoT devices is growing rapidly, requiring higher signal processing bandwidth. But this additional DSP performance still has to live within a very small power budget, so we have been enhancing our ultra-low power EM Processor Family with scalable DSP capabilities to handle more complex sensor data fusion tasks, as well as audio and speech/voice processing.
Another example is data security, which is a key careabout for IoT device makers and consumers as more and more sensitive data gets passed within and between connected devices and systems. In recent months we have introduced new processor options such as CryptoPack for accelerating common cryptography algorithms and the Enhanced Safety Package that enables ARC EM users to create trusted execution environments that protect their systems and software from evolving security threats such as IP theft and remote attacks.
Four. Porting Does Require Effort, But the Right Ecosystem Helps
There is understandable concern out there about the effort in migrating from an existing architecture to a new architecture, including having to port software. However, these days the vast majority of programmers write in C/C++, making their code easy to re-target to different hardware architectures. Software tool support for the ARC architecture is among the best in the industry, including the MetaWare toolkit from Synopsys and the open source GNU tool chain. There’s also a port of Linux available for ARC HS, which is part of the official Linux tree on kernel.org. As the second most pervasive processor architecture, there’s already a tremendous amount of existing ARC software in the industry, as well as commercial software from third parties ported and optimized for ARC. Keep in mind that even within the same processor brand portfolio, migrating to a new generation core or from one class of processor to another usually requires code recompilation to take advantage of the new target hardware. So this is a known and justifiable investment when the power, performance and area advantages of an alternate processor choice are compelling enough.
Five. The ARC Ecosystem is Growing
A processor’s ecosystem is incredibly important to both hardware and software engineers across the development chain. Because of ARC’s longevity and success in the market, there is a broad ecosystem of boards, tools and software available from Synopsys, third-party partners and open source initiatives to help ARC users get their projects completed more efficiently. And the ARC ecosystem is growing: for example, in 2015 we launched embARC.org, an open source community where software engineers will find a comprehensive suite of free and open-source software (OS’s, middleware, protocol stacks, etc.) to help accelerate application software development, as well as documentation and a user forum for sharing expertise and code. Another example is the ARC Access program, which includes leading hardware and software providers from across the industry delivering commercial solutions optimized for ARC processors.
Six. IoT Device Developers Juggle Multiple Challenges
Embedded designers are constantly challenged with the paradigm of needing more features and performance with constant or shrinking power budgets. Many embedded devices are power constrained, so energy consumption has a direct effect on the marketability of the end device. For the IoT in particular, where edge devices are incorporating more and more sensors collecting more and more data, designers are looking for high signal processing bandwidth for sensor fusion. Another challenge IoT device developers face is evolving and/or competing communications and security standards that require them to make tough decisions early in the design cycle about which standard(s) to support.
Matt Gutierrez joined Synopsys in 2000 and is currently senior director of marketing for processor IP and tools. His responsibilities include the worldwide marketing of ARC Processors and Subsystems as well as tools for the development of application-specific instruction set processors (ASIPs). Prior to joining Synopsys, Mr. Gutierrez held various technical and management positions with companies such as Cypress Semiconductor, Fujitsu Limited, and The Silicon Group. Mr. Gutierrez has over 25 years of experience in the semiconductor, computer systems and EDA industries and holds an MSEE from The University of Texas at Austin.