Tick, Tock, Tock

Jeff Child, Editor-in-Chief, COTS Journal

In the world of military embedded computing, Intel processors are now long past the days when they were the outsider looking in. Things were not always so. Until about 20 years ago, Intel processors couldn’t crack the competition held by Motorola 68000 line of CPUs and its massive installed base in military systems. Many of those 68k based systems upgraded to the PowerPC processor in order to avoid rewriting all the legacy embedded software. Another issue was that Intel processors were burdened with power dissipation levels much higher than the embedded-focused PowerPC/68000 lineage of processors. High power dissipation translates to managing heat levels—a problem that’s particularly tricky in defense systems where conduction cooling is preferred over the use of fan cooling.

The turning point came as Intel’s line of processors developed for laptop and other portable devices evolved to where they contend and often surpass the low power levels of the completion. Today processors like Intel Core i7 family now offer leading edge levels of compute performance within a reasonable realm of power dissipation. Along the way, the growing sophistication of software deployment—in terms of operating systems and tools—makes it no longer a huge chore to port from legacy processor architectures to new ones and thus switching to Intel was less of a hurdle. And while legacy PowerPC (formerly Motorola, then Freescale and now NXP) technology is still a force in the military embedded space, it no longer dominates.

Looking at the last 12 to 18 months, significantly more board and box-level products based on the Core i7 have emerged than on any other processor—many of those based on the 5th and 6th generation Core i7 processors. COTS Journal covers those products each month giving us a pretty good perspective on which processors embedded computing suppliers are designing in on board- and box- products marketed toward defense customers. Because defense runs a generation behind the consumer and desktop computing markets, most of the SBCs and systems aimed at the military embedded computing market last year were 5th gen Broadwell Core i7, with some 6th gen Skylake products seen as well.

In 2017 we’re already seeing a slew of products rolling out based on Intel’s 7th generation Core i7 (formerly code named Kaby Lake). For some years now, Intel has followed a yearly roll out strategy for its processors that’s become known as “Tick Tock”. On even numbered years a processor family advanced to new manufacturing process—Tick. And on odd numbered years that same processor family would get a new architecture design. 2012’s Ivy Bridge processors (Tick) for example was introduced on a 22-nm process (down from 2011’s 32 nm Sandy Bridge process). And 2013’s Haswell (Tock) processor introduced an architecture upgrade while maintaining a 22-nm process. The pattern continued in 2014 with Intel’s Broadwell introduced on 14 nm process followed in 2015’s Skylake once again with a new architecture.

The Kaby Lake or 7th Gen i7 (i3, i5, m3) has broken the Tick Tock cycle making no architecture change while using a “tweaked version of Intel’s 14 nm silicon process. In keeping with the theme of low power discussed above, the 7th generation Core processor maintains a standardized thermal envelope for 65W and 35W desktop products, remaining consistent with the previous processor generation. In terms of efficiency, Intel claims the improved technology promises up to 17 percent faster multithreaded CPU performance and up to 15 percent faster graphics. That’s all at the same or similar thermal design power (TDP) as the prior generation.

Intel says the Kaby Lake enables developers to craft more flexible designs with the same high-speed I/O as the previous generation and tap into fast memory performance and 64 Gbyte max capacity with 8 Gbyte density. The 7th gen Core i7 and Intel Core i5 processors come with Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.06. With Intel Hyper-Threading Technology (only on Intel Core i7 processors) each processor core can work on two tasks simultaneously.

Other important features include Intel Advanced Vector Extensions 2 (Intel AVX2), which provides optimized instructions to drive enhanced performance on floating point-intensive apps, and the company’s Ready Mode Technology for PCI Express storage. New to 7th Gen device are accelerated 4K hardware media codecs. These provide enhanced high-density streaming applications and optimized 4K videoconferencing with HEVC (10-bit), VP8, VP9, and VDENC encoding, decoding, and transcoding. Offering 4K Ultra HD capability enables resolutions now up to 4096 x 2304 pixels with support for performance across three independent displays with audio.

It’s worth pointing out that Intel for its part has become very helpful to embedded system developers by providing clear roadmap information on their processors. These help board and box system suppliers know what’s coming, and perhaps more importantly knowing how many years a processor will stay in production. The military’s long development cycles have always been way out of synch with the consumer semiconductor market. Design cycles for military platforms can be decades long versus one year (or less) long life cycles of the consumer products. But while semiconductor suppliers like Intel and others know the military market is a tiny slice of their revenue, they do a pretty good job providing clear roadmaps of their product lifecycles. In the upcoming months and throughout the year, expect to see the next wave Intel processor based SBCs and rugged systems here in the pages of COTS Journal.