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2011

Computer-on-Module (COM) technology has become a welcome fixture to the embedded design community. These commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) modules package all the components needed for a bootable host computer so that the designer can concentrate on the unique features of an embedded product that differentiate it from the competition.  COM methodology provides a faster time to market, reduced risk, and lower development cost along with better control over form, fit, and function. A plug-in computer module also allows embedded developers to keep pace with advances in processor architecture and interface technology without having to reengineer their products.

 

One of the more popular COM configurations for small form factor embedded designs is COM Express, an open industry standard defined by PICMG (PCI Industrial Computer Manufacturers Group). COM Express modules contain the CPU, memory, common peripherals like USB or SATA and I/O interfaces such as PCI Express or graphics.  Embedded device manufacturers then create a carrier board that contains the circuitry and connectors that are unique to each application. Since the CPU function is separate from the custom circuitry, the manufacturer can select different processors depending on the application requirements. Industry standard modules also provide developers with multiple vendors to insure uninterrupted availability.

 

As processor technologies evolve, COM Express module manufacturers are enticed to fit the required functions into smaller packaging.  For example, the new Intel® Atom™ E6xx architecture integrates the display, audio, and memory interfaces onto the CPU resulting in higher system bandwidth along with a reduced bill of materials (BOM) and board area. Responding to these new, integrated architectures, PICMG member companies have proposed updates to the COM Express specification to include revised connector pinouts and a new 84 mm x 55 mm “Ultra” form factor that is about the size of a typical credit card (See figure 1). PICMG implements new standard technologies with common connector pinouts so that designers can easily maintain compatibility with legacy circuitry or create new legacy-free products.

 

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Anticipating the new “Ultra” form factor, ADLINK Technology announced the nanoX-TC COM Express compatible module featuring the Intel® Atom™ Processor E6xx series at 600 MHz up to 1.6 GHz along with up to 2 GB of 800 MHz DDR2 SDRAM (See figure 2).  The module supports both 24-bit LVDS displays (with resolutions up to 1280 x 768 pixels) and SDVO displays (including DVI, TV out, and analog CRT) with resolutions up to 1280 x 1024. In addition, the module includes four PCI Express x1 lanes, two SATA ports, seven USB 2.0 ports, a serial port, and HD audio. The nanoX-TC operates at 0°C to +70°C with standard processors or -40°C to +85°C with extended-temperature CPUs. Power consumption is five watts maximum and three watts at idle, with support for S0 - S5 sleep modes.

 

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In addition to the integrated display, audio, and memory interfaces, the Intel® Atom™E6xx architecture provides a number of performance enhancements and features that enhance small form factor embedded designs. For example, the E6xx series combines the 45 nm processor core plus memory and display controller into one package to reduce the component count and lower overall power requirements. Also, the front side bus used in previous generations has been replaced with a four-lane PCI Express interface giving designers the option of replacing the companion chipset with custom or third-party circuitry. E6xx processors also incorporate the Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator (GMA) 600 2D/3D graphics engine which delivers a 50 percent improvement in graphics performance compared to the predecessor.


Off-the-shelf modules with low power operation, built in video-processing, and scalability are key components in the development of small or portable embedded devices. The Intel® Atom™E6xx series architecture provides these features through a flexible I/O architecture that simplifies module design and shortens the time to market. If you are starting or have completed a small form factor COM Express design, please offer your suggestions and share your experience or questions via comments with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community.  You can keep up with the latest technical articles and product announcements at the Embedded Computing Design archives on COM Express.

 

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

 

ADLINK Technology is an Associate member of the by Intel® Embedded Alliance.

The second generation of the Intel® Core™ processor family includes higher-performance DSP capability than any previous Intel® Architecture (IA) processor or for that matter any general-purpose microprocessor. Indeed the Intel® Advanced Vector Extensions (AVX) instruction set and single-instruction multiple-data (SIMD) execution unit on processors such as the Intel® Core ™ i7 enable design teams to develop analytics systems without relying on a dedicated DSP IC or FPGA. Example applications include surveillance systems that rely on image processing, military radar systems, and automotive vehicle-classification and driver-assist systems.

 

I covered some of the details on the AVX instructions and second-generation architecture in a recent post on sensing and analytics. Today let’s discuss the architecture specifically related to DSP applications and have a look at some real benchmark data.

 

Among the keys to DSP performance is the doubling of the data path and AVX instruction width to 256 bits whereas prior IA processors relied on 128-bit Intel® Streaming SIMD Extensions (SSE). But the processing capability alone isn’t the entire story. Analytics applications require the processor to move rich data streams onto the processor feeding the SIMD execution unit and storing the objects such as elements of an image in memory.

 

An application such as facial recognition must continuously process captured image frames breaking an image into relatively-small groups of pixels. The processor must execute DSP algorithms on each pixel set. For example, algorithms might correct for camera lens distortion and sharpen the image, perform color space conversion, and filter noise. Such preprocessing must happen before the processor can perform that actual recognition or pattern-matching algorithm.

 

The new Core processors have several features in addition to SIMD to enable such applications. The on-chip ring interconnect is optimized to move rich data streams, the tiered memory architecture provides the required bandwidth, and the latest PCI Express® Gen2 implementation supports 5 GT/sec (giga transfers per second).

 

Companies that are devoted to applications such as surveillance have certainly recognized the DSP potential. Indeed GE Intelligent Platforms* has published a new whitepaper entitled “DSP applications to reap benefits from inclusion of AVX in processors.”

 

The whitepaper covers both AVX and some of the data-movement capabilities that I mentioned above. For example, the paper highlights the three-level cache and the integrated DDR3 memory controllers. According to GE, the memory architecture in aggregate supports 21.35 Gbytes/sec in peak bandwidth.

 

Still it’s the AVX capability that GE stresses as the key to DSP-centric applications such as surveillance and radar. The whitepaper stresses both the wider instructions and the fact that there is an AVX SIMD unit in each of the two or four cores on i7 processors. Each core cam handle 8 32-bit, or 4 62-bit floating-point operations simultaneously. And a four-core processors offers 4x that capability. GE noted the importance of being able to process 64 operations per clock cycle on a four-core processor.

 

GE tested the second-generation Core processors using a Synthetic Aperture Radar code benchmark. Relative to first-generation Core processors at similar clock speeds, the new processors offer more than double the DSP performance. The whitepaper also notes that Intel® Hyper-Threading Technology (Intel HT) can boost performance 25 to 30%.

 

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GE offers a broad set of second-generation Core i7 single board computers. The portfolio includes the DSP280 6U OpenVPX (pictured), the XCR14 6U CompactPCI, the XVR14 6U VME, the SBC324 3U OpenVPX, and the SBC624 6U OpenVPX boards. GE offers the products in five levels of ruggedization – from “benign to fully rugged.”

 

There are several other sources of good information on both implementing DSP algorithms on IA processor and specifically on the AVX capabilities.

Although it was written about prior-generation IA processors and SSE technology, Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing** wrote an excellent article entitled “Military signal processing with Intel Architecture” that was published in the Embedded Innovator magazine. The article presents a benchmark based on an FFT algorithm. It also describes the data flow through the processor and all of the information presented can be easily applied to the latest IA processors.

 

You will also find a section of the Intel® Embedded Design Center called “Signal processing on Intel Architecture” that as the title indicates is dedicated to DSP. On that site you will find links to other whitepapers and other information resources on AVX.

 

AVX offers design teams the ability to reduce system footprint, weight, power consumption, and cost by eliminating the need for other DSP-centric ICs or FPGAs. The embedded industry, and especially the military and aerospace segment, has an acronym for such savings – SWaP (size, weight, and power). GE noted in its whitepaper that SWaP reduction is a key AVX benefit.

 

Is SWaP a key concern in your projects? Have you utilized SSE or AVX instructions to handle DSP algorithms? What technical hurdles did you face and how did you overcome them. Please share you experiences with fellow followers of the Intel® Embedded Community via comments.

 

To view other community content focused on sensing and analytics, see “Sensing and Analytics – Top Picks.”

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Maury Wright

Roving Reporter (Intel Contractor)

Intel® Embedded Alliance

 

* General Electric Intelligent Platforms is an Associate member of the Intel® Embedded Alliance

** Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing is an Affiliate member of the Alliance

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