The communications segment is a key application target for embedded design teams. But is it a good match for Intel® Architecture (IA) processors? Actually IA offers great benefit in terms of the broad base of software and drivers that exist for a variety of applications. The concern in the communications segment is the ability of any general-purpose processor to handle packet processing efficiently. Generally design teams augment general purpose processors with specialized processors or accelerators for packet processing. What newcomers to IA may not know, is that Intel has standardized a hardware/software acceleration scheme called Intel® QuickAssist Technology and even developed an IA-based communications-oriented SOC with an integrated accelerator. Moreover third-party IC and platform vendors support QuickAssist.

 

You might want to quickly review the Intel® QuickAssist Technology web page for some background information. But here’s a quick summary. The Intel® QuickAssist Technology Acceleration Abstraction Layer (AAL) defines an additional abstraction layer between the normal API (Application Programming Interface) level and the underlying hardware. Accelerator libraries and applications sit above the AAL. This new layer abstracts the hardware interconnect scheme. Accelerators can be integrated in a processor chip, implemented in an FPGA, or implement in an ASSP (application specific standard product) IC. The AAL layer supports the evolution of accelerator interconnects including the processor front-side bus, PCI Express and the Intel® QuickPath Interconnect. Software developers can design products such as VPNs and security gateways that via the AAL will work with a variety of hardware platforms.

 

Intel kick started QuickAssist with the introduction of the Intel® EP80579 Integrated Processor that was code named Tolapai. In an IA first, the SOC design included an IA processor core, key external interfaces such as USB, PCI Express, and SATA, and a memory controller. Essentially, the design eliminated the need for core-logic support chips. But what really sets it apart in the communication space is the version of the SOC than integrates a QuickAssist-compatible accelerator that can handle security applications such as VPNs and firewalls, and IP telephony applications.

 

Tolapai has proven very capable in packet-oriented security applications. For example, Advantech* has integrated the SOC into the FWA-3240 Network Security Appliance. The 1U rack-mount product includes deep packet inspection capabilities and targets entry- to mid-range security applications.

 

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To understand how the accelerator-enabled Tolapai compares with standard IA processors, you might watch an Advantech webcast hosted by Telecom Sector Marketing Director Paul Stevens (free registration required.) Stevens compares a VPN appliance based on a Pentium M processor to one based on Tolapai. The former includes processor, I/O controller, memory controller, and dedicated PCI accelerator ICs while the latter only include the Tolapai IC. At 200-Mbps VPN data throughput, the Pentium M CPU utilization is 100\%. At 1600-Mbps VPN data throughput, the Tolapai CPU utilization is 10\% with the accelerator handling the packet load.

 

Several IC vendors have also demonstrated QuickAssist support. For example, NetLogic Microsystems** has demonstrated a range of its NETL7 Content Processors with IA platforms including QuickAssist platforms such as Toloapai. LSI Corp*** similarly demonstrated its FPGA-based Tarari Content Processor working with Tolapai.

 

There are also other vendors offering board-level QuickAssist-compatible products. For example, ADI Engineering**** has several such single board computers.

 

Do you have experience working with packet oriented accelerators? Have you developed a methodology for porting software to different accelerator hardware? Would you consider using an abstraction layer to ensure software compatibility and provide access to scalabale hardware platforms?

 

Please share you experience via a comment so that fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community can learn from your experience.

 

Maury Wright

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)

Intel® Embedded Alliance

 

*Advantech is a Premier Member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance.

** NetLogic Microsystems is an Affiliate member of The Alliance.

***LSI Corp is an Affiliate member of The Alliance.

****ADI Engineering is an Associate member of The Alliance.