Taking the ARM strategy to the next level
With the availability of the PC-like ARM processor technology, there is a huge chance to improve time to market and to reduce R&D costs by facilitating processor implementations via x86 form factors. One example is the availability of the NVIDIA® Tegra™ 2 processor on Pico-ITX™ boards. What are the benefits?
The current performance level and low power consumption of ARM technology, which is applied in standard tablet applications, make it particularly interesting for embedded SFF applications. Consequently x86 embedded platform vendors now also enter the ARM technology market, as an addition to x86 technology. One strategy of these vendors is to level out the technological barriers between ARM and x86 using scalable building blocks. This strategy is very appealing to a large number of OEMs – as this means they can obtain very scalable platforms with completed Board Support Packages for all popular operating systems. And thanks to the corresponding hardware-specific software the underlying hardware can be abstracted so that more and more homogenous, application ready platforms come into existence. For OEMs, swapping from one board, module or system to another becomes a relatively easy procedure. But this goal can only be achieved if vendors will ensure this with the right standardizations on board and software level and by offering extensive software services. Depending on the programming of the application and which operation system is employed, no software changes have to be made, or only very few. Further to this, ARM solutions are always available as full-custom designs on board and system level, so that OEMs can fully concentrate on their application development, without having to consider any individual differences.
Standards alleviate implementation
The hardware design on board level goes to demonstrate how easy the selection of the right CPU building blocks for the application can be. For example, the interface feature set of a Pico-ITX™ board with Tegra™ 2 from NVIDIA® (see box 1) is hardly any different from the Intel® Atom™ or AMD Embedded G-Series designs which are already available. The major difference is to be found in the processor and consequently in its performance class (see table 1).
A major difference is that ARM processors are more dedicated and thus offer less generic interfaces like SATA or PCI Express which in x86 designs are often used for connecting individual extension options. Having said this, many of the ARM SOCs have several UARTs, I2C and SPI interfaces. So, theoretically speaking, the generic interfaces could be levelled out with additional components and some development effort. That would, however, also level out the valuable energy-saving advantages which make ARM designs so attractive: The need for cooling is reduced, fanless designs are possible which makes them more failsafe and results in a better MTBF. Developing and manufacturing the systems becomes easier – and the systems lighter in weight – due to the lack of heat pipes, cooling elements or fans.
But bringing back these generic interfaces is superfluous as, especially in SFF designs, the trend is towards less not more generic interfaces. Subsequently, the difference between the feature set of the Pico-ITX™ board is of little relevance. As the Pico-ITX™ format is standardized, the application-specific choice of the right x86 or ARM designs can be carried out within one single ecosystem – and no technological barriers have to be considered. The mechanical compatibility to the whole existing product portfolio is a major advantage and goes to simplify system design. Even more simplified desings can be achieved if besides the mechanical design advantage, ARM based boards additionally offer a range of software benefits. For example, the extensive support for all operating systems which are currently available for these processors. With such application-ready platforms the time-to-market can be reduced significantly and with it the costs for development.
Scalability across all processor platforms
Are ARM processors now integrated into the realm of x86 form factors? Has this brought an end to the whole technology argument? If it was up to the embedded standard form factor vendors to decide, then, yes. Because at the end of the day, it is simply these vendors goal to deliver standard platforms to its embedded customers and to embrace new applications, which to date were not possible with all other existing processor implementations. A high level of scalability of the fitting standard form factors across all processor platforms makes a lot of sense, as then OEMs can port their applications more easily between RISC and CISC architectures. If additional hardware-specific software services are provided to realize the code modifications which are sometimes necessary, then the underlying processor architecture is less and less a fundamental criterion for decision-making.
Two other factors will play principle roles: energy consumption and performance per watt. One could also say that the market has now entered an era – after the enormous successes which the x86 technology inspired – in which thanks to the extensive software support, the borders of the processor technology are disappearing as the software ecosystem can be extended to further technology platforms. Consequently, the standard form factors on board level have to be extended to accommodate these new processor platforms.
Wide range of services for direct entry
In order to enable customers to make an immediate entry into the ARM technology, embedded platform vendors need to offer their ARM-based building blocks in a bundle with extensive custom design services, so that OEM customers can get integrated ‘application-ready platforms’ on board and system level either as standard or as customer-specific versions. Besides this individual hardware development service on board and system level, Kontron for example also focuses on providing extensive services for software development, which ranges from driver development and OS code adjustments to a broad range of application porting and validation services as well as hw/sw bundles including quantity licensing. Application developers profit from efficient migration, fast time-to-market and, parallel to this, can reduce development risks and cost, as application-ready platforms are available which are already certified, so that the customer can completely concentrate on his core competence: application development.
Needless to say, that embedded platform vendors need to support all the ARM-relevant operating systems. Apart from Windows CE 6 and Windows Embedded Compact 7 (WEC7) in particular Linux-based operating systems are supported on ARM products. VxWorks support is planned for TI processors. These operating systems are especially interesting for applications, which demand the highest availability and best real time behaviour. Furthermore, support of an ARM-native version of Windows 8 is in the pipeline. The Android operating system which is at home in the smartphone and tablet market is a must to open the door to the vast market of networked multimedia-oriented applications based on ARM technology which this relatively young operating system caters for. The BSPs are validated right up to system level which enables OEMs to focus on the application without having to train accordingly and this minimizes time-to-market and TCO.
When comparing the three Pico-ITX™ feature sets it becomes apparent, that in terms of the most important interfaces like USB, Ethernet, graphics and storage for SFF devices, there are hardly any differences, so that basically, with the extension into ARM technology, scalability is further increased.
The Small Form Factor board in Pico-ITX™ format (100 mm x 72 mm), which is currently being developed, is equipped with a 1 GHz NVIDIA® Tegra™ 2 Dual Core processor and integrates a completely passive cooling concept while boasting very low power consumption of 3 watts and an attractive feature set: in addition to 10/100Mbit Ethernet, five USB 2.0 ports and up to 24 configurable GPIOs the ARM Cortex A9 architecture-based mini-board has a slot for Micro SD cards and 512MB or 1GB 32bit DDR-2 memory. The audio-visual experience is also worth looking into too: the integrated ultra low-power (ULP) NVIDIA® GeForce® GPU delivers graphic performance for mobile devices in high-quality gaming console quality and can simultaneously stream two HD videos (1080 p). Displays can be connected via DVI-I for analog and digital signal transmission and via a 24 bit LVDS converter. Backlight support is provided by either an internal 5V intern or an external 12 V. Following audio support is available: via SPDIF and stereo line-in and line-out as well as MIC. A whole range of hardware accelerations for flash, video and audio codecs ensures fluent and brilliant playback of multimedia and web content.
Author: Daniel Pieper is Product Marketing Manager at Kontron