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Configurable Thoughts
  • About

    This blog is about everything to do with microprocessors. While we discuss architecture, tools, best practices, new innovations, performance, and system implementation, we also look at software, applications, and the larger industry trends. The processor market is a fascinating place today, and even though it has been around for more than 30 years, it is in many ways just getting started. We would love to hear from you on our blog posts, and please don't hesitate to let us know if you think we are wrong — it does happen occasionally.
  • About the Authors

    Michael Thompson

    At the age of 10 Mike begged his father to get him a computer. Never mind that at the time computers were the size of a large office and cost millions of dollars. Yes, Mike is no spring chicken and he didn’t get the computer, although his father did give him an abacus telling him that it would enable him to use the computer that he already had between his ears, which was not appreciated. Whether it was due to the trauma that resulted from using an abacus or just Mike’s love of anything electronic he has spent the last 30 years or so designing, building, and programming computers, microprocessors, and microcontrollers and developing applications that run on them. And his fascination continues with the definition of new processors and architectures in his search for the holy grail of computing: infinite performance at zero power consumption. Statistically speaking he is convinced it is just a matter of time.

    Allen Watson

    Allen started in the ‘semiconductor IP industry’ before it was called the ‘semiconductor IP industry’. Back then, it was about ‘megafunctions’, ‘megablocks’ or MegaMacros™ (as trademarked by the pioneering UK IP company Allen was with… no, not that UK company). The biggest of these ‘mega’ things was an 8051! Today, of course, IP blocks are much larger and much more complex. And, it’s about the software, as well as the hardware. It’s also about working with a set of partners, sometimes called an ecosystem or community. Allen has been doing that for many years and is enjoying working with old and new friends on the ARC processor ecosystem.

When 8-Bits Is Not Enough

Posted by Mike Thompson on December 7th, 2012

There comes a time in every SoC designer’s life that the marketing guys start complaining that they are losing sockets to the competition, because the chip that you designed no longer has enough performance. Nothing lasts forever and this is especially true with electronics. What is state-of-the-art today is destined to be your Momma’s electronics, and sooner than you think. The performance demands for electronic applications increase at a constant rate. This is due to the combination of more stuff being added to applications over time, the convergence of functions from multiple devices into one device and the natural tendency that we all have to be less tolerant of slow functionality the longer we use a product. Oh yes, and the constant demand by marketing that engineering increase performance because they can’t think of anything else to do to beat the competition.

For 30 years 8-bit processors have been the workhorses of embedded applications. You no doubt interact with dozens of 8-bitters daily and probably don’t even know it. They are all around us but as the electronics in our world becomes more sophisticated 8-bit processors are becoming less and less able to keep up. To be sure, there will be 8-bitters used for many years – there are after all a few 4-bit processors that are still being used in some applications. But the time for 8-bit processors is passing as new 32-bit processors shrink to sizes that are comparable while offering an order of magnitude more performance, and advanced features that 8-bitters can only dream of.

Synopsys’ ARC EM family has been developed in part to hasten the exit of 8-bit processors. Starting at fewer than 10K gates the EM family is tiny, but at 1.52 DMIPS/MHz and clock speeds above 900MHz (28nm) it offers performance that can only be obtained from a modern 32-bit architecture. Even better while increasing performance the EM family processors can reducing power consumption, because they can do a lot more work per clock so they can be put to sleep for longer periods or slowed way down. They also have the flexibility to be configured to fit into the slot that the 8-bit processor is vacating. The memory configuration of the EM family is highly malleable – you can mix different types of memories and memories that are running at different speeds. The EM processors are also highly configurable so you can tailor them specifically for the instance on your SOC.

So, with all of the things that you have to worry about why are you still trying to make do with that old 8-bitter? Make your life easy and drop a 32-bit processor in that socket. You will be happy with the result and you will love not having to listen to the marketing guys complain about losing sockets because of the performance of your design.