Semiconductor manufacturer Intel today launched the Atom E3900 processor family aimed at powering the Internet of Things (IoT).
Intel general manager, IoT planning and product line management, Jonathan Luse told journalists ahead of the launch that the E3900 is a family of processors designed “from the ground up” specifically for the automotive, industrial and video IoT applications.
“The main driver for what is driving the IoT in Intel today is largely around two phenomena,” he said. The reduction in the cost of sensors and connectivity in the last ten years “all of a sudden gets us to a point where ‘Things’ can go access data and then they can connect it to other things and then that becomes the Internet of Things.”
Designing for IoT
“Ten years ago I would design a processor for a simple machine or embedded device knowing that device was programed to do one or two things and it was completely unaware of its surroundings, and now I’m designing devices that have to do that function but also do it in the context of everything around it,” Luse said.
How does this affect the architecture of the chip during design? Luse told us that with ‘Things’ power and efficiency is most important because often these products will not be connected to a main power supply. “So extracting the most amount of performance you can in a very power-conscious environment is an important thing from a processor architecture point of view.”
From a design point of view Luse takes a vertical approach. “We think about problem statements that we’re trying to solve and then [figure] out what kind of attributes we can deconstruct into a processor from that point on.” The platforms, products, and software are built onto the processor later.
The E3900 was designed for automotive, industrial and vehicles applications. It was built from the ground up to support the rapid development and growing complexities IoT infrastructures, according to Luse, and comes with the typical Intel attributes that “you know and love” – a “very powerful processor from a CPU point of view, very good graphics capabilities, good sensor technologies as well as real-time.”
What really sets it apart from previous generations (3800), however, is its image processing and time coordinated computing technology. These are the two newest areas for the Atom processor, which Luse’s engineering team dedicated a lot of time to get right.
Image processing includes things “like high-dynamic range and ultra-low light type colour correction applications so the image quality itself can be processed properly,” he said.
Time coordinated computing “gives you a synchronized quality of service for data to enable down to 1 microsecond of accuracy, and the implications for this would be the faster you can guarantee a certain amount of latency between one device end and another the more you can do higher control speeds in your process loops.”
Supposedly the chip provides 70 percent more compute performance than the prior generation and from a visual point of view it enables extremely fast graphics, ultra-HD display, and 3 independent displays of 4k. It should also offer greater control of latency.
Luse explained that the chip would be suitable for current “software defined cockpit” technology in vehicles where multiple screens and low latency are crucial for vehicles with interactive dashboards that control emergency braking systems.
“Let the innovation happen”
Luse has seen every generation of Atom, but is particularly confident about the E3900. “I can tell you this will be our most successful product in Atom history, just in the customer traction we’ve had to date pre-production and the number of design wins we’ve had.”
At Intel’s investor day the company apparently had discussions with 49 different automotive manufacturers alone, of which 33 different OEM car manufacturers will end up implementing something. Luse said we may see the processor in some product launches as early as the middle of 2018.
It is also not short of budding partners, which are vital for actually getting the product out there. “Frankly I was turning more customers away that wanted to get involved with [IoT] early to get ahead.”
We asked Luse whether customers knew exactly what they wanted to do with these processors or whether it was just a case of jump on the IoT as soon as possible. “There’s a little bit of both,” he admitted. “I design these processors with those three applications in mind but the ODMs are constantly coming back with interesting new applications that I never would have thought of.”
“The IoT market is so fragmented that I don’t think we could ever design one processor to fit every application, so the process we take is let’s pick a couple of these target workloads and really optimize the design for that and let the ODMs and OEMs figure out how to innovate beyond there. Put it out there and let the innovation happen!”