We’ve covered the technology integrated in the new Intel® Atom™ E6xx processor family quite a bit of late, so let’s take the next step and discuss how the increased level of integration in the new Intel® Architecture (IA) family matches up with embedded applications. Embedded design teams may be surprised to learn that the E6xx eliminates the need for a separate graphics IC and also can leverage application-specific I/O controller ICs. Modular product vendors are already offering products that target specific applications such as industrial and automotive. Moreover, IC and software vendors are paving the way to more integrated designs.
If you want more information on the E6xx, I’d recommend you check out a few earlier blogs. Kenton Williston first covered the E6xx back in September around IDF noting that it was the “first IA processor designed specifically for embedded applications.” More recently, I wrote about the rugged modular products that are already available based on the E6xx family.
Today, let’s consider where else the processor family fits well along with the companies supporting specific applications. For example, consider Congatec*. The company introduced a modular E6xx-based product, the conga-QA6, back at IDF. The module is based on the Qseven modular standard for 70mm-x-70mm boards that is promulgated by the Qseven Consortium. The single-board computer (SBC) platform is somewhat similar to the COM Express platform in that the SBCs are meant to be used as computer modules that are mounted on larger application-specific carrier cards. But Qseven modules are even smaller than Com Express modules and can fit on PC/104 carrier cards.
Most recently Congatec is promoting the conga-QA6 for usage in CAN (controller area network) applications. CAN was originally conceived as a control-network for automotive applications and is now also widely used in industrial automation. The E6xx-based Qseven module marks the first time Congatec has supported CAN on Qseven. Indeed the Qseven specification has been revised to version 1.2 to designate previously-reserved pins for CAN usage.
In the Congatec SBC, the CAN support comes courtesy of the Intel® Platform Controller Hub EG20T that is integrated alongside the processor. That I/O hub includes CAN support and is indicative of Intel’s continued push to expand the embedded-centric features available in its processors and chip sets.
Many embedded applications will match well with the features integrated in the Intel I/O hub. Still part of the beauty of the E6xx is that design teams now have the flexibility of choosing a different path toward implementing I/O. Design teams can move toward greater integration and lower cost by choosing features in an I/O chip that exactly match application requirements.
With the E6xx processor, design teams can leverage the PCI Express (PCIe) lane that Intel has used in place of the old front-side bus to connect a processor and an I/O hub. A team can either buy an E6xx-specific I/O IC from a third party that closely matches the requirement of their application, or they can even design a custom IC.
Kenton Williston wrote about custom I/O chips for the E6xx recently. In particular, the article described how you can use the Oki Semiconductor** ML7213 IC for automotive infotainment applications. The Oki chip is a closer match for such applications than is the Intel EG20T.
Oki has also announced another I/O hub for the E6xx. The company’s ML7223 I/O hub is targeted at telecommunications applications. Specifically the company has identified IP media phones as a target. The IC integrates I/O such as SATA and USB that’s required to boot the processor. The design includes a Gigabit Ethernet MAC and a hardware accelerator for IP-Sec applications. And it includes support for echo/noise cancellation that would enable IP phone applications.
STMicroelectronics has also announced that it will offer E6xx-compatible I/O ICs. The company has announced the ConnecXt IOH that targets automotive infotainment applications. For example, the IC adds support for the auto-centric MOST (media oriented systems transport) multimedia network to other features such as SATA.
Still the ultimate in integration and the ability to scale the E6xx into smaller form factors will come from custom I/O IC designs. That trend will also enable the lowest-cost bill of materials. Henry Davis covered some of this ground in a recent article on hardware and software development for custom I/O hubs. One problem that such a design presents is how to boot the processor. Once the I/O controller hub is gone there may be no way to connect to a boot device and no way to implement a BIOS.
ADI Engineering*** has developed licensable software and hardware that helps solve the problem. The company has a minimalist I/O hub implemented in a small FPGA along with boot-loader code to assist in custom designs.
Most recently, ADI Engineering has announced the latest version of its Cinnamon Bay SBC family that embedded design teams can use as a development platform for the E6xx processor.
ADI Engineering has a unique business model relative to other SBC manufacturers. The company sells SBCs that design teams can use off the shelf to deploy applications. But the company also pursues what it calls an Open IP approach in that it licenses the IP behind its modular products. Development teams can utilize the IP integrated in the Cinnamon Bay SBCs and embed that technology in custom designs.
The Cinnamon Bay EX SBC is due in the first quarter of 2011. ADI Engineering will offer versions that utilize the E6xx processor and Intel I/O hub, and what it calls the thin configuration based on the FPGA and boot loader mentioned previously.
Would the ability to utilize a custom I/O hub impact your design choices in applying IA processors to embedded systems? Please share your thoughts with the Intel® Embedded Community via comments. Are you doing your own custom SBCs or relying on off-the-shelf modular products? What are the key deciding factors in that choice?
Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)
Intel® Embedded Alliance
* Congatec is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance
** Oki Semiconductor is an Affiliate member of the Alliance
*** ADI Engineering is an Associate member of the Alliance