ARM unveils SMP core for embedded devices

Chip designer Arm has developed a processor design for consumer electronics devices that uses SMP (symmetric multiprocessing) technology usually found in servers.

The MPCore was developed in partnership with NEC. It brings the multicore technology that chip designers have implemented into server processors down to the embedded networking device or set-top box market, said Dave Steer, director of segment marketing for Arm.

SMP technology allows multiple processor cores to work together on a single silicon die. Nearly every semiconductor maker these days is looking to reduce the power consumption of their products, and multicore processors are one way to do that.

A single-core processor must run at a high clock rate in order to deliver the performance needed for applications like video encoding that must run without a missed frame or choppy picture. However, the faster a chip runs, the more heat it produces. This is a concern for all system designers, but it is especially true for makers of compact industrial networking equipment or slim consumer electronics devices that will sit in living rooms.

Arm's MPCore design divides up the system workload across multiple cores that can deliver the same overall performance at slower clock rates, Steer said. An individual processor core can also be assigned to just one specific task, such as video encoding, while another processor core runs the operating system, he said.

For example, a set-top box could run HDTV (high-definition television) code while digitally recording another television program and networking with a PC or an external storage device.

"This is a recognition that multicore solutions are going to be a significant trend," said Kevin Krewell, editor-in-chief of the Microprocessor Report.

Chip companies have been able to increase performance for years by increasing clock rate as process technologies advanced, but the thermal dissipation from those high clock rates is not sustainable at this point, especially in embedded devices, Krewell said.

Sun Microsystems Inc. and IBM have already released dual-core processors for their servers. Intel Corp. has recently decided to scrap the development of single-core designs in favor of dual-core products.

The MPCore design includes additional protections against excessive power consumption, Steer said. Arm's Intelligent Energy Manager technology scales both frequency and voltage to correspond with a chip's workload. It can shut down cores that aren't needed for certain applications for even greater power savings, he said.

Arm customers will be able to put up to four separate ARM11 cores in the MPCore product, Steer said.

The MPCore is available for license by Arm's customers as of Monday. Chips based on the design probably won't start to appear until the second quarter of next year, and products based on those chips will be released around 2006, Steer said.

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