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MWC 2018: the Hardware roundup

Below are Riot’s key takeaways from our MWC meetings, presented in our traditional round-up format– to give you a comprehensive taste of the trends on show. Power concerns were central to nearly all, Intel was feeling a squeeze on many sides, as alternative compute and network architectures make progress.

The following companies are covered here: Napatech, Vuzix, CEVA, Cavium, Ossia, Altair

Napatech – FPGA-based data center acceleration

Napatech CMO Jarrod Siket was on hand to talk us through the new SmartCard offering, a PCI-based FPGA expansion card for general purpose servers – in the same vein as Napatech’s SmartNIC cards, aimed at networking applications. Noting that Napatech’s expertise lies in the FPGA software running on its cards, our conversation turned to the current FPGA duopoly – between Intel (Altera) and Xilinx.

Siket said that Intel currently has around a 60% market share in the Network Interface Card (NIC) market, but was essentially forced to spend $16.7bn on buying Altera in order to protect that share of the market – as the rise of NIC products like those from Napatech threaten to slash Intel’s share of the standard NIC market – which totals around 20m units each year.

Currently, Napatech claims that its SmartNIC cards can provide 10-40x increase in networking application performance, with the sales pitch being that it is far more cost effective to add Napatech NIC cards to a server than to try and scale performance using more general-purpose servers.

This kind of dynamic compounds the problems that Intel is facing in the general compute market, where the popularity of GPUs in AI and Machine-Learning applications have damaged its Xeon CPU shipment outlook. With GPUs stealing share in the CPU market, and FPGAs doing the same in NIC market, the pressure is mounting on Intel – and that’s before the likes of Cavium start pushing their ARM-based server CPU offerings too, turning the screw.

However, Intel has won some recent reprieve via Microsoft, with Siket saying that in the wake of Azure’s seminal whitepaper on the potential for FPGAs in the cloud, every new Microsoft Azure server has an Intel FPGA inside it, with AWS also now moving to offer FPGA-aaS in its cloud offerings.

Vuzix – AR smart glasses boast huge RoI

Smart glasses vendor Vuzix was showing off its latest design, the Blade, at MWC, offering a streamlined AR experience in a form factor that looks much more like traditional thick-frame glasses than its M100 or M300 designs. The M300 is an impressive bit of kit, with rail-mounts to make it compliant with the various safety regulations needed for glasses and helmets, with Vuzix taking on a lot of user feedback gathered from the M100.

Alexander Kelly, Director of Enterprise Innovation, walked us through the changes, adding that a roof repair firm, Lee Company, has achieved around a 1:20 Return on Investment (RoI), since its adoption. Of particular use was the ability to show customers concrete proof of problems, something that is tricky in roofing, where an engineer can take pictures of a problem they find while on the roof, which can then be combined into the quote or job spec. For Lee, it’s a solid way to drive business.

Another interesting revelation was that older workers were more comfortable using the systems, after a period where they were initially more hesitant. Kelly says that Vuzix customers report that the more experienced workers can better appreciate the value of the time-saving features that the AR-tech enables.

DHL remains a strong customer, reporting a 25% increase in efficiency for its warehouse pickers. Another excellent use case was a project with Airbus and Accenture, where Airbus achieved a 500% increase in productivity on its aeroplane fuselage line, after the glasses ensured that its assembly workers placed the bolts to hold the seats in place at precisely the right location – so that an entire fuselage doesn’t have to be scrapped if they are off by a few inches.

With the Blade costing around $1000, and the M300 around $1500, neither are going to take off as mass market consumer devices. However, the Blade form-factor is much more likely to be a hit than earlier designs, and with further iterations, Vuzix might find itself able to provide the experience that Google tried with its Glass.

CEVA – NB-IoT to get cheap enough for no-fuss chip drop-ins

Chip designer CEVA’s VP Market Intelligence, Richard Kingston, said that NB-IoT will eventually be seen as an option to drop into a chip like WiFi or Bluetooth, thanks to the low potential cost of adding the protocol to your design. Kingston pointed out that with NB-IoT, CEVA is also offering the software stack, and not just the DSP design, thanks to a partnership with Astri.

There are now 3 customers for this NB-IoT module, with around a dozen more in the pipeline. Kingston said there was a lot of interested from established companies that have no experience with cellular, and so the appeal of being able to just drop the NB function into a chip like they would Bluetooth or WiFi is so appealing.

CEVA’s new PentaG 5G designs were also on show, with a particularly interesting feature being a machine-learning processor that is being used for the 5G channel estimation that has to be done on the handset – as the current spec for 5G networks wouldn’t allow the network to do that computation. As such, the system is a much more efficient way of doing this, instead of using a probability model, according to Kingston, and something that CEVA would license to the likes of Qualcomm and MediaTek.

Another very interesting piece of recent CEVA news was the availability of RISC-V as a processor architecture for CEVA’s WiFi and Bluetooth designs – an open source chip that is outperforming alternative options in benchmarks.

Kingston added that the new NeuPro machine-vision chips are forging ahead, and that a major automaker is a few months away from a decision for a 100 TOPS processor for use in its cars. Kingston noted that many automakers are interested in having other options than Intel’s Mobileye and Nvidia – mostly so that they can use the designs as competitive differentiation, which is not possible when they are buying a blackbox design. Such BOM costs are also currently prohibitive for lower-priced cars.

In the past year, CEVA shipped around 200m Bluetooth IoT devices, up from around 140m the year before. Kingston says CEVA expects to hit 300m this year, and that opportunities in audio processing and the emerging 5G baseband designs are particularly exciting.

Cavium – ARM-based servers at 25% opex of Intel, without the monopoly

Cavium was showing off its second-generation ARM server designs, based on its CPUs, which are being used as part of Microsoft’s Project Olympus. Senior Director of Cavium’s Solutions Architecture Kin-Yip Liu walked Riot through recent updates in Cavium’s networking business, which is preparing for 5G and network-edge opportunities.

Liu noted that the definition of ‘edge’ was quite broad in the IoT, and that because it is outside the data centers, there is a very close focus on security – especially now that the business use cases are very concrete, and not abstract buzzwords.

In the networking side, Cavium was demonstrating its new Octeon Fusion M SoC, which Liu described as basically a single-chip base station. The Blinq Micro Octeon M was being shown, as a way to provide fixed-wireless CPE for residential broadband, and an LTE base station design from Cavium had also been contributed to the Telecom Infrastructure Project (TIP). The Octeon TX was an interesting design, to support universal CPE with virtualized functions like firewalls.

Liu told us of a project with Sprint and ARM, in which a containerized Evolved Packet Core (EPC) was deployed by a company called Packet. In this public cloud model, Packet found that its Cavium-powered servers cost around $0.50 an hour to run, compared to the $2 hourly cost of an Intel Xeon approach. When asked about the benefits of running ARM CPUs not Intel, Liu stressed that the ARM ecosystem was not a monopoly and that there was more competition there.

Cavium has been keeping busy with the EdgeX Foundry, with public demonstrations of the edge-processing technologies. Also of note was the M-CORD (Central Office Rearchitected as Data Center) project within the Open Network Foundation (ONF). Cobham is part of this project, and is using the idea in its Berlin smart city deployment (outlined in the Networks section).

Ossia – wireless charging demo goes swimmingly, FCC certification soon

Ossia was demonstrating its long-range wireless charging technology, using its ceiling-tile hub device to charge devices using the 2.4GHz ISM band, specifically around 100KHz of frequency, just above channel 13 in WiFi. CTO and Founder Hatem Zeine was on hand to answer our barrage of questions, stressing that retail and IIoT were Ossia’s key first markets.

Short-range wireless charging rival Energous has made a lot of noise about getting the first FCC Part 18 classification approval, and Zeine said that he was thrilled about the win, but confident that Ossia’s own FCC approval will be complete in the first half of the year – and that its focus on low-power but high-efficiency will help it carve out a market for the technology.

In terms of capabilities, the two ceiling tile units (measuring around 120cm x 120cm, with half that surface area dedicated for the antennae), can deliver 20W of power, and are more efficient when used in conjunction with each other – around twice as efficient, and able to deliver four times the effective power.

Zeine said that the very rough figures see 6W delivered at a 1-meter range, with around 2-3W at 5-meters. The full 20W can be delivered at very close centimeter ranges, the CTO stressed that the key is delivering meaningful amounts of power to the devices over these distances.

Key to this is Ossia’s rejection of beam-forming as a delivery mechanism. Instead, the arrays remember the reflection patterns of the waves that return to them from the devices that need charging, and then use that pattern to determine what path the wave traveled. This then lets it fire power down that path (or paths if multiple options are detected), with the arrays spending about 1% of their time polling device paths and the other 99% transmitting power over RF – vibrating the antenna inside the receiving devices, to generate the electricity needed.

The demo worked well, and the system also supports data transmissions – with a very interesting application being digital shopping labels for use in retail stories. These roof tiles can be installed, and then used to send both pricing information and power to the on-shelf labels. Zeine says the bandwidth is measured in kilobytes, so it won’t be being used for streaming video. Each tile can support thousands of devices, using a rules engine to prioritize charging.

Altair – big step forward for LTE-M/NB-IoT metering

Low-power chipset designer Altair was fresh off a major piece of news, where customer Sierra Wireless had announced that its HL78 module was being used in Japan by MNO KDDI, for a gas metering application. Not happy with other suppliers, KDDI brought in Sierra Wireless, according to Altair’s Jonathan Maresky, Director Business Development, and has published some very encouraging results.

For a long time, the low-power licensed LPWAN silicon was not power efficient enough for smart metering deployments – an application that needs a one-touch installation and an assurance that an engineer won’t have to revisit a device to change a battery, which could scupper the business model that initially justified the deployment.

Using the Altair ALT1250 chipset, Sierra Wireless’s AirPrime HL78 is able to deliver what it claims is 10x the battery performance of comparable LTE-M or NB-IoT modules (although we lack the laboratory needed to properly test this claim). The end result, according to KDDI, is a two-way communication system that can last 10-years on three 2,400 mAh batteries.

Sierra Wireless’ design was a 15mm x 18mm module, but muRata has recently unveiled its 1SC (the 1SE has an STMicro CPU and eSIM support), which measures 11.1mm by 11.4mm. For Altair, these smaller designs enable its silicon to power smaller devices, and the company expects wearables and asset tracking to prove popular.

Maresky also described how firmware updates can have ruinous effects on device battery life. He said that this was one application where having a dual-mode LTE-M and NB-IoT device made a lot of sense (one argument against opting for a single-mode design that might enable a lower price point), as it would allow you to switch to the higher bandwidth LTE-M connection for the code download – resulting in less time on air and less power drained from the batteries. This could be the difference between losing months of power or years, if an unexpected update has to be issued to the remote device.

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