What does the Apple-Intel announcement mean to VME?

You'll note from the volume number on our cover that VMEbus Systems magazine has been published for more than 23 years – it is certainly among the longest running publications serving the embedded industry. So it is with great pleasure, and a fair bit of reverence, that I take over the helm of this magazine that was established shortly after Motorola's original VME public announcement. My first association with the VME specification was about 1990, and I also remember when the VME International Trade Association (VITA) waved the banners at VME's 1992 10-year anniversary. At the time, no one knew VME would last for ten years.

I never could have dreamed that 13 years later I would have the privilege of running the industry's only magazine dedicated to “all things VME.” First, I want to thank Senior Technical Editor Mark Barrera for his excellent stewardship of VMEbus Systems, and for making the handoff so smooth for me. As you may know, Mark has moved on to running our successful magazine, EmbeddedComputing Design. As the industry heats up, we at OpenSystems Publishing continue to expand our magazine lineup.

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Who gives a hoot about Apple or the Mac computer? The military, that’s who. Technology that affects the desktop will find its way to embedded VME military systems very quickly.

You may have missed the recent news from Apple’s Developers Conference that starting in late 2006, Apple will switch from IBM PowerPC microprocessors to Intel CPUs. If you're like 97.7 percent of the users in the PC market (according to data by IDC), you use Windows or some other non-Mac equipment. So Apple's recent news is probably a “don't care” to all but 2.3 percent of you. Actually, this switch is really big news that has the potential to reverberate throughout the VME community and beyond. First, a bit of background.

As the desktop PC and Macintosh market has moved to commodity status, processor vendors need to find new markets that will pay more than just commodity pricing for value-add feature sets. On the one hand, Windows processor vendors Intel and AMD have been adding dual cores, 64-bit instruction sets, and entire complementary product lines of embedded spin-offs that target cell phones, and portable handheld appliances such as PDAs and MP3/MPEG4 players. On the other hand, Apple’s CPUs are PowerPCs sourced by IBM (and previously by FreeScale). IBM, similar to Intel, is broadening its line by focusing on the next-generation video game, entertainment, and high-end server markets.

Rumor has it that Apple was growing increasingly frustrated at IBM’s inability to match performance and power with Intel’s latest Pentium M product offerings, causing missed processing benchmarks in Apple’s product roadmap. Worse, the PowerPCs in Macs have been too power-hungry, forcing Apple to use liquid cooling in high-end G5 towers, and actually avoiding the best PowerPCs for the growing notebook computer market because they use too much power. By switching to Intel, Apple solves its performance and power problems with the stroke of a pen. But that’s not the interesting part for the VME community.

The PowerPC microprocessor is used extensively in PMC and VME-based single board computers and multiprocessing modules. Freescale’s G4 with AltiVec is the de facto high-end CPU in applications ranging from medical imaging to synthetic aperture radars. In fact, in our online Products database (www.vmebus-systems.com/products/), there are 174 different VME boards, 75 PMC modules, 25 PrPMC modules, and another 600 or so products in other form factors such as CompactPCI or 2U “pizza boxes”.

Although IBM’s PowerPCs have taken a different direction than Freescale’s, without a commitment to Apple, IBM is free to pursue its high-performance passion to the fullest. As early as August 2002, rumors began to circulate that IBM, Sony, and Toshiba were working on a multiprocessing/multi-core single chip called the Cell that would dramatically increase number-crunching performance in games and video entertainment applications.

Today, that chip is a 3.2 GHz “supercomputer”, a three-core reality that’s based upon the PowerPC and destined for the Microsoft Xbox 360. A variant of the Cell chip is also rumored to replace Sony’s emotion engine in the PlayStation 3. The Xbox is due out before Christmas 2005, and the PS 3 is targeted for mid 2006. The sheer convection-cooled processing power available in these low cost, living room consumer virtual reality and media center consoles may rival entire chassis filled with current-generation G4 PowerPC-equipped VME boards.

On the Intel side, Apple-inspired higher performing and multi-core Pentium Ms that merely sip current are sure to find their way into next-generation heat- and power-sensitive VME applications where today’s G4 PowerPCs just can’t go. All in all, the Apple-Intel announcement will give both IBM and Intel just the excuse they need to power next-generation VME systems with exciting new capabilities.

Chris Ciufo
Group Editorial Director
VMEbus Systems Magazine