Posted by steve tateosian on October 24, 2011
We are moving from the “Mobile Revolution” – the revolutionary advance that is allowing everyone on the planet to connect to everyone else, all the time – to the “Internet of Things.” This latest revolution will be profound because not only will we be connected to each other, but our stuff will be connected too. Our cars, refrigerators, light switches, cameras, and every other device we interact with will become intelligent and will connect seamlessly to other intelligent devices to make life easier without our even having to pay attention.
Just as the Mobile Revolution required a new type of processor, new types of processors are emerging to handle this new task. These processors put less emphasis on the ability to run a human-interactive OS and more emphasis on even lower power (even drawing power from their environment), lower cost, and smaller size. These processors, along with the devices they control, need to disappear into the background and do their job without bothering us.
These deeply embedded processors will be shipped in the billions. To meet that need, we’ve seen an explosion of new small processors. Synopsys is supporting many designs using innovative new processors from IP companies like ARM, MIPS, and Tensilica, plus in-house embedded processors from traditional IDMs like Renesas/NEC. We have also updated our own ARC family to bring the traditional strengths of the ARC architecture – configurability, very low cost, and excellent power/performance – to this new deeply embedded market. The 32-bit ARC ARC EM4 and ARC EM6 processors are small, starting at less than 10K gates, but they deliver over 1.5 DMIPS/MHz. At 28nm they can be clocked at more than 950MHz, delivering 1425 total DMIPS while consuming as little as 2.3uW/MHz.
What are the interesting places where these new 32-bit processors are likely to start showing up? Of course, there are the typical applications, such as sensors, actuators, 8- & 16-bit replacement, portable devices, power management, offload processing, and so on… However Merriam Webster defines “embed” as:
1a: to enclose closely in or as if in a matrix
b: to make something an integral part of
With these new processors “embedded processing” can take on a new meaning. For example, in Minneapolis the St. Anthony Falls Bridge is being built with a network of 323 sensors which will monitor the span for corrosion in the concrete, strained joints, or other structural weaknesses. An anti-icing system will track the roadway’s temperature and spray potassium acetate before ice begins to form. There’s also a traffic monitoring system, which detects the speed and volume of cars on the span. If there’s an accident that blocks the roadway, information can be relayed to central command so drivers can be alerted or rerouted. In other words, intelligence is being embedded right into the bridge’s concrete and steel.
Where else will these new deeply embedded processors go? Will they be in everything that we interact with? Will they be in our clothes? Will they even be in products that you use once and then throw away? Time will tell, but with the “Internet of Things we can expect to find deeply embedded microprocessors everywhere, in everything, and in places previously out of reach, literally.
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 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.