In the first two posts of this series, I covered techniques that you can use to “future proof” your embedded design and boost your graphics performance for signage and gaming applications. Now let’s look at an industrial automation application.


Industrial automation systems must interface with a wide range of I/O requirements including proprietary legacy circuits and the latest high-speed interconnects.  Because of the longevity of industrial equipment designers must frequently interact with multiple generations of technology. For example, it is not uncommon to find the 4-20mA analog current loop standard for instrumentation used alongside Ethernet and wireless interconnection technologies in older industrial settings. Although this dichotomy of I/O requirements has made it difficult to combine them all into a single industrial automation platform, the latest Sandy Bridge microarchitecture from Intel® gives designers a new modular framework to boost performance, lower power requirements, and enhance I/O flexibility.




Sandy Bridge, the codename for Intel®’s latest Core™ processor family microarchitecture, combines a variable number of CPU cores, Last Level Cache (LLC), a system agent, and an optional integrated graphics processor. The System Agent is the heart of the I/O system for Sandy Bridge and includes 16 PCI-Express 2.0 lanes, Direct Media Interface (DMI), a dual-channel memory controller, and the display engine. The System Agent connects to the rest of the Sandy Bridge components by way of a ring interconnect to provide a high-bandwidth, low-latency interface to both DRAM and I/O.  This ring concept allows Intel® to add or remove the graphics processor and adjust the number of cores to deliver Sandy Bridge variations that reduce system cost and power requirements, while boosting performance.


The System Agent provides a flexible I/O configuration for industrial automation platforms allowing designers to easily modify functionality as requirements change. For example, Sandy Bridge includes a 16-lane PCI Express port that is compliant with the PCI Express Base Specification, Revision 2.0 and is capable of bifurcating into narrower links. Bifurcation allows the system to divide a larger PCI Express port into multiple smaller ports without a PCI Express Switch. The 16 lanes can be bifurcated into two x8 ports, one x8 port and two x4 ports, or four x4 ports. Combined with a chipset such as the Intel® series 6 family, the combination can also produce a wide range of I/O such as Serial ATA revision 3 at 6 Gb/sec, PCI Express 2.0 at 5 GT/sec, up to 14 USB 2.0 ports, and multiple display outputs including HDMI, DVI, VGA, DP, LVDS, and Intel® SDVO.


Industrial automation platforms normally operate in fully automatic mode in a factory production environment and without a local operator.  Addressing this type of application, Sandy Bridge provides compatibility with Intel®’s vPro technology allowing designers to access, control, and reconfigure a remote embedded system. vPro includes Intel® Active Management Technology (Intel® AMT) with certificate-based security for remote access regardless of the operational status of the system. This technology provides industrial automation support teams an economical method to monitor, manage, and control a large number of production platforms from a central location.


When embedded systems designers are faced with combining legacy platforms with a state-of-the-art high speed, possibly real-time control application, virtualization becomes an option. With multi-core software virtualization technology, such as TenAsys Corporation's INtime or Wind River’s Hypervisor combined with Intel® Virtualization Technology for x86 (VT-x), designers can join multiple, real-time processes without having to establish priorities between deterministic processes. Virtualization allows designers to integrate older operating systems along with their existing applications with minor changes while employing the latest tools and software for new development.


Depending on the function, some newer industrial automation applications require demanding floating point calculations to speed signal processing functions. Sandy Bridge incorporates Intel®’s new Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) instruction set to optimize high speed calculations.  Although the AVX data path has been increased to 256 bits to accommodate demanding floating point processing, it is backward compatible with all previous x86 ISA (Instruction Set Architecture) extensions. With the AVX extended performance, you can potentially eliminate external hardware-based digital signal processing circuitry to reduce the component count and lower overall power requirements.


Industrial automation designers should investigate Sandy Bridge for their next project to take advantage of the scalable multi-core architecture and flexible I/O features.  You can find more information about new Sandy Bridge features and enhancements from the embedded presentation at IDF. If you are ready to start an industrial automation project please share your Sandy Bridge concerns, questions, and successes with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community. Also, there is more to come as I cover the new Intel® Open Pluggable Specification (OPS) that defines a standardized module to ease the integration of digital signage components.


Warren Webb
OpenSystems Media®, by special arrangement with Intel® Embedded Alliance


Wind River Systems is an Associate member of the by Intel® Embedded Alliance. TenAsys Corporation is an Affiliate member of the Alliance.