Configurable Thoughts



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.