Processors in VITA technology

3The original VMEbus specification was tightly coupled to the Motorola 68000 bus architecture; since then, the open architectures defined by the various VITA standards are no longer restricted to any specific processor technology. This feature takes a look at the status of the current choice of processors.

Intel Architecture processors have made great strides in the past 10 years to the point where this is now the dominate processor architecture used on many VPX-based Single Board Computers (SBCs). Intel has made substantial commitments to extended processor lifecycles that are mandatory in most critical and intelligent embedded systems. The introduction of multicore architectures balanced out the performance/energy ratio to make the processors better suited to the tough environmental conditions experienced by embedded systems.

Most suppliers have settled in on the mid-range of the Intel processor family. Occasionally, one will see an Intel Atom-based product or boards using Intel Xeon server-class processors, but most are using the 3rd and now 4th generation Intel Core processors. The June introduction of the 4th generation Intel Core processors based on the Haswell architecture brought on a wave of SBC announcements. Most SBC suppliers upgraded their 3rd generation products line to the new processors.

The Haswell architecture brings several new enhancements to market:

  • The integrated HD graphics in the 4th generation Intel Core processor platform delivers HD media playback for highly visual retail and digital signage solutions. Without the need for a discrete graphics card, the built-in graphics deliver smoother visual quality and improved ability to decode and transcode simultaneous video streams. Additionally, the new platform can also support up to three independent displays, enabling one system to drive multiple screens.
  • The upgrade to the Intel Advanced Vector Extensions (Intel AVX) 2.0 instruction set delivers improved integer/matrix-based calculation abilities. For example, the faster calculations enable the rapid collection and interpretation of sound waves in an ultrasound machine and quick connectivity for delivery of the visible images to the radiologist for a timely diagnosis.
  • Intel AVX 2.0 also improves performance due to wider vectors, new extensible syntax, and rich functionality. This results in better management of data and general-purpose applications such as image and audio/video processing, scientific simulations, financial analytics, and 3-D modeling and analysis.
  • The 4th generation Intel Core processor family also features the latest Intel security and management technology to enable faster data encryption for securing data in applications that range from top-secret process data in factory automation to medical records.
  • Intel Advanced Encryption Standard New Instruction (Intel AES-NI) for data encryption enables intelligent systems to quickly encrypt and decrypt data running over a range of applications and transactions. With Intel Active Management (Intel AMT), the OS can now be easily shut down remotely, thus expanding the overall manageability tools available to customers. This platform enables businesses to more easily activate, deploy, and securely manage unattended systems, saving time and cost through a centralized IT administration.

    Figure 1: Intel’s newest 4th generation Core i7 processor started shipping in products in June.
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Freescale Power Architecture

Many VITA technology board suppliers use PowerPC Architecture processors for the SBCs. The newest are from the Freescale QorIQ family. The T4240 has 12 physical dual threaded e6500 Power Architecture processor cores supporting 24 virtual cores, and the T4160 has 8 physical cores supporting 16 virtual cores. With frequencies scaling to 1.8 GHz, large caches, hardware acceleration, and advanced system peripherals, these products target applications that benefit from consolidation of control and data plane processing in a single System-on-Chip (SoC).

These processors can be used for combined control, data path, and application layer processing in data centers, WAN optimization controllers, application delivery controllers, routers, switches, gateways, application and storage servers, mil/aerospace, and general-purpose embedded computing systems. They can deliver approximately four times the computing horsepower of the P4080, Freescale’s previous QorIQ multicore SoC. Like other QorIQ SoCs, these processors’ high level of integration offers significant space, weight, and power benefits compared to multiple discrete devices.

AMD Architecture

AMD also offers software compatible processors to the Intel Architecture. The AMD Embedded G-Series Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) is a combination of a low-power CPU and advanced GPU into a single embedded device. This level of graphics integration builds a foundation for high-performance multimedia content delivery in a small-form-factor and power-efficient platform for a broad range of embedded designs. This processor is used on several smaller form factor boards because of its graphics performance to power advantage.

ARM Architecture

ARM-based processors are used extensively on many SBCs and I/O modules, but the ARM processor core is buried within the intelligent controllers used on these boards. ARM processors are starting to make a showing as the primary processing element on some PMC and XMC mezzanines. The performance level and multicore capability are improving to the point where talk of SBCs based on ARM technology is on the verge of reality. Xilinx has moved the adoption of ARM, along with the inclusion of an ARM core, in their Xilinx Zynq-7000 All Programmable SoC.

Figure 2: Xilinx’s Zynq 7000 includes dual ARM Cortex A9 cores.
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The Xilinx Zynq-7000 All Programmable SoC platform enables the efficient development of smarter systems through a combination of two ARM Cortex-A9 MPCore processors combined with Xilinx’s 28 nm programmable-logic fabric.

The future of processors and single board computers

While other processor families are occasionally used for SBCs, the majority are Intel, Power, and ARM architectures.

The Intel Architecture is a favorite choice for general-purpose processors used on SBCs. 4th generation Intel Core processors have been added to almost everyone’s product portfolio, making a quick performance boost available. Intel will continue to scale the processors to improve performance and reduce energy demands. Supporting chipsets will continue to introduce new I/O as the technology emerges.

The Freescale QorIQ series has the advantage of more cores and, with its highly integrated packaging, has no need for a larger supporting chipset. Communications applications gain the most benefit from this processor family, but many industrial applications with a need for highly concentrated connectivity can also benefit.

ARM is widely used by all of the processor suppliers but it is usually used as a controller core with application-specific processors or chipsets. Expect to see ARM emerge in more SoC products with multiple cores that will be used as the primary processor.