The IoT will present such a huge variety of applications that chip designers will face a daunting challenge. On the one hand, the components and software they use will need to be as standardized and tightly integrated as possible to hit the ultra-low price points required to enable billions of end-points. On the other, different use cases will require different combinations of functions, demanding flexible and easily customizable platforms.
Addressing that dangerous dichotomy may be the biggest justification for Marvell’s radical new approach to system-on-chip (SoC) design, MoChi. A modular chip concept, it supports the first ‘virtual SoC’, the firm boasts, and while it has initially sampled MoChi products targeted at midrange embedded products like storage processors, the most urgent need is likely to evolve in the IoT, once it starts to hit those promised billions of devices with accompanying gateways and controllers.
MoChi allows an SoC designer to pick and choose from modular components rather than integrating as many functions as possible into one IC. Rather like Google’s Ara in the handset world, Marvell’s role is to provide the framework to connect these different chips easily together. Even chips manufactured in different processes can work together as closely as though they were on the same die, says Marvell. The modules connect via a special implementation of ARM’s AXI interconnect, which Marvell calls MCi.
The end result should be lower cost, footprint and power consumption, and an SoC that is tailored to the specific needs of the device or application, it argues. The resulting product looks like a conventional SoC to applications software.
The first two ARM-based MoChi products to sample are the AP806 for storage modules, and the Armada A3700 for connectivity options like WiFi, BLE, ZigBee and others. The latter is Marvell’s first 64-bit Armada chip, since it cancelled plans for a 64-bit PXA chip amid its exit from the smartphone modem/processor space.
“The introduction of Marvell’s AP806 MoChi module is the first step in creating a new process that can change the way that the industry designs chips,” said processor analyst Linley Gwennap in the firm’s press release. “This Virtual SoC is a simpler, more flexible approach that can reduce design cost and speed time to market.”
Marvell said the architecture can be the baseline for many applications in the IoT, as well as smart TVs, smartphones, tablets, notebooks, network switches and storage devices.
Also pursuing the perfect balance between integration and flexibility is Intel, with its upgraded IoT platform. Having long promised to knit its diverse IoT offerings together, from silicon to software, its new offering takes a step towards integrating technologies from a range of developments and acquisitions.
Setting out the next phase of the chip giant’s IoT vision, CEO Brian Krzanich was clearly well aware that it is critical for Intel to push its architecture into every link in the chain, from big data servers to the billions of sensors and modules at the end. This is the most important future replacement for the declining PC and the failed handset activity, and the latest chance to underpin very consumer device.
In the IoT, that requires more than just silicon – to hit targets of size, price and power consumption, full integration with software, security and connectivity will be essential, and ARM is chasing down that route, worryingly for Intel, with mBED OS, TrustZone and other developments.
Intel must go a step further, and for Krzanich that means going beyond integration and supporting endless flexibility. Solution providers must meet customer demands for experimentation, he said, and that means any platform must support a wide range of mix-and-match functions – otherwise the large companies will lose the most valuable position in the chain to the start-ups. “People are starting to create this data world even without the integration of a big company,” Kzranich said.
Connectivity must be standard and tools open source, but applications infinite, added Doug Fisher, VP of Intel’s software and services unit. He introduced an upgraded IoT reference architecture which can connect a wider variety of devices, from security cameras to cash registers. Some of these may be connected, but not to the cloud and the APIs which can enable a new range of functionality.
Intel is also extending the Quark family of ultra-low power processors, which target wearables, smart devices and IoT gateways. In particular, it has added advanced pattern-matching capabilities so device makers can allow motions and vibrations to be detected and translated into automated decision-making.
One of the most important acquisitions Intel has ever made, Wind River, underpins this on the cloud software wide and the firm has further evolved its Helix software-as-a-service (SaaS) suite for IoT, and added two cloud-connected operating systems, Wind River Rocket and Wind River Pulsar Linux, to ease development of IoT-based solutions. Rocket is a real time OS for applications running on 32-bit microcontrollers, such as wearables, while Pulsar is a stripped-down binary Linux OS which is aimed at gateways or industrial controllers. Both OSs are free and support ARM as well as Intel processors.
Developers can write and test cloud-based apps to simulate hardware environments d can, Intel claims, produce a new app within 10 minutes.
Enterprise software giant SAP is the first to sign up publicly for these platforms and will use them to pilot IoT apps for retail and other enterprise sectors, while Intel also announced developer partnerships with Advantech, Autodesk, Avnet, Cypress, Freescale, HP Enterprise, Kontron, Microsoft, Oracle, PTC/Thingworx, Salesforce, Texas Instruments and Xilinx.