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Applied Micro set to take ARM into single-board computers

08 Oct 2014  | Nick Flaherty

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Applied Micro is moving all of its products to the ARM architecture by 2018, a crucial move that signals the end of the PowerPC family. After Freescale, Applied is the largest supplier of chips based on the architecture.

The essential element in this move is a 64bit multi-core ARM device aimed directly at single-board computer (SBC) designs with four-channel memory support. This is an important step, because ARM has yet to make significant inroads into the SBC market, which is dominated by x86 and PowerPC.

The new device, part of the HeliX family, is based on the microarchitectural developments introduced in the X-Gene family for small servers. This doesn't change the instruction set, but it tweaks various elements in the core. This includes tweaking the caches to ensure better throughput of data and less stalling, along with fine grain power and performance gating throughout the cores, interconnect and peripherals.

The SBC chip looks set to be on 28nm. The first HeliX part, sampling now, is built on 40nm and provides four and eight cores at 2GHz with two channels of DDR3-1600 and two SATA 3.0 connections. This is aimed at networking line cards and initial SBC designs, with thermal profiles of 25W and 42W, respectively.

The second generation on 28nm brings four and eight cores at 2GHz with two channels of DDR3-1600 memory and thermal profiles of 18W and 32W, respectively. Sampling is due in 2016.

The thermal envelope is key for the SBC market to ensure cooling is sufficient, and Applied is aiming to have a four-channel, eight-core, 2.4GHz part for customers such as GE and Siemens within a 24W power envelope for fanless designs.

This looks set to be based on X-Gene 2, called Shadowcat. Built on 28nm, it already has four channels of DDR3 memory, though the on-chip 8MB L3 cache may be overspecified for the SBC market, so the focus will be on a stripped down, power optimised version with a leaner peripheral set.

However, the use of a nonblocking interconnect and optimised throughput is ideally suited for rack-based systems. Shadowcat also includes support for RoCE in the data centre, which puts Infiniband protocols over 10G Ethernet. This is a compelling capability for a backplane in a high-performance rack for the embedded market, where Ethernet is starting to emerge as a native backplane protocol.

The Shadowcat X-Gene devices are sampling now with production expected in 2015. The Shadowcat version of HeliX would seem set to follow with samples next year or into 2016.

Applied is already planning its X-Gene 3 devices to be made on a 16nm FinFET process and providing eight and 16 cores on a chip. An SBC version of this would clearly mark the completion of the transition away from PowerPC in both processing and thermal performance.

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