What's so special about Intel's Core i7 processor and why is it finding a lot of industrial applications?

It would be easy to come to the conclusion that those companies building boards for industrial rack mounted systems don't like Intel processors. Look back over the years and there is a fairly consistent delineation: while desktop and portable pcs have been the natural home for Intel's processors, the industrial world has been the province of the PowerPC architecture. Yet, almost overnight, things have changed. At the beginning of this year, Intel launched a range of processors and that announcement was followed by a flood of companies launching Intel based boards. What has happened? Why, all of a sudden, are Intel processors so popular? GE Intelligent Platforms was one of those companies, launching five boards. What prompted the move? Richard Kirk, a product manager with GE, said that, for many years, designers had been faced with a dilemma when choosing a processor architecture. "Intel's raw performance has always been compelling," he claimed, "but this often came at the cost of a hard to manage power envelope. On the other hand, Freescale offered solutions that made a trade off between processor performance and power consumption/heat dissipation." But a significant point in the PowerPC architecture's favour was access to AltiVec. This floating point processing capability has proved attractive in sophisticated applications such as digital signal processing. Growth in demand for portable computing products, along with the realisation that processing power cannot be delivered through increasing clock speed alone, has changed Intel's outlook. "Now," says Kirk, "the processor discussion is not only about clock speed, it's also about performance/Watt and the size, weight and power – or SWAP –characteristics of a solution." Almost overnight, Intel is back in fashion for industrial applications and the processor of choice appears to be the Core i7. "The combination of Intel Core i7 processor performance, along with Intel's commitment to long life cycle supply, has propelled us to choose Intel as the best technology choice for our signal processing product line," said Lynn Patterson, vpand general manager of Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing. "We look forward to many future product generations that will harness Intel's multicore processor roadmap." Kontron's cto Dirk Finstel claimed: "Our VX6060 is the computing tool that high performance embedded computing users have been waiting for, allowing them to finally walk away from 10 years of PowerPC Altivec dominance in radar, sonar and imaging applications. "With two dual core high performance embedded processors, the VX6060 is the right answer for rugged embedded computing, where the power envelope and dissipation constraints at extreme temperatures of computers designed for harsh environments still prohibit the use of quad core silicon." Vincent Chuffart, product marketing team manager with Kontron, noted: "The world is full of legacy code and this has mainly been ported to the pc platform. But it's mostly single threaded and therefore can't take advantage of multicore processors." He pointed to the i7's Turbo Boost technology. This feature increases the performance of multi and single threaded workloads. According to Intel, Turbo Boost is activated when the OS requests the highest processor performance state. "Previous Intel architectures," Chuffart noted, "were good at graceful degradation when the processor got too hot. Turbo Boost takes this in the other direction; speeding performance when possible on a per core basis. If you can have single threaded code and the other core isn't used, you get a performance boost. Even with poorly optimised code, users can get the benefit of the new architecture." Agreeing with Kirk's perspective, Chuffart noted that power consumption and heat dissipation have always been important factors in industrial systems. "Before the Pentium M architecture appeared," he noted, "Intel processors consumed too much power. After that, they became applicable to 6U systems." GE Intelligent Platforms' VR12 is a 6U VMEbus single board computer with a Core i7-610E operating at 2.53GHz. As well as supporting up to 8Gbyte of DDR3 sdram with ECC, it provides support for two PCI-X PMCs or two x8 PCI Express XMCs. Along with connectivity options, the board is available in five ruggedisation levels, from benign/office to fully rugged convection cooled. Curtiss Wright's CHAMP-AV5 multiprocessing board, meanwhile, features a pair of 2.53GHz Core i7-610E processors, offering a performance of up to 81GFLOPs. The company says that, with 4Mbyte of shared cache and two hardware threads per core, the Intel cpu can process larger vectors at peak rates significantly faster than was possible with AltiVec based systems. All the same, the PowerPC architecture remains popular. Chuffart said two thirds of existing systems are PowerPC based. "But innovation in the PowerPC architecture has run out of steam and new projects are being developed on the Intel architecture." Kirk said the i7 has a number of desirable features for industrial systems. "ECC memory and a floating point processing capability are examples. Floating point processing is a fundamental requirement for many sophisticated applications, such as radar, sonar and sensor processing," he said. But floating point capability is not a new feature of Intel processors and Kirk said that earlier Intel processors with floating point capability had been benchmarked and found to compare favourably with Freescale and its AltiVec processor. "A significant attraction of the Core i7 is the inclusion of an even more capable floating point processor," Kirk noted, "and the fact that Freescale no longer supports the AltiVec processor. Beyond this, the Core i7's hyperthreading capability promises to substantially improve the performance of single precision FFT operations." Chuffart noted: "The i7 has two cores and support four executions per channel. This ability is getting a lot of interest from radar and sonar developers. Applications in these sectors are heavily parallelised, can use all cores and are more sensitive to the Intel architecture." Kirk also pointed out that Core i7 is a family of processors. "Intel has recognised the importance of being able to trade processing performance against power consumption/heat dissipation," he added. Three versions of the Core i7 are available, with power consumption of 35, 25 and 17W and with clock speeds of 2.53, 2 and 1.06GHz respectively. "Early indications are that the Core i7 will offer either more processing performance per watt compared with earlier products, or will offer lower power consumption per unit of processing performance. GE Intelligent Platforms will offer all three as build options." Core i7 also offers a powerful graphics capability which may mean a separate graphics processor isn't needed in many applications. "Early benchmarks," said Kirk, "show a level of performance comparable with previous platforms that employed a discrete graphics processor. While the requirement for discrete graphics capability will still exist, the capability provided by a single board computer based on the Core i7 will suffice for many applications." Chuffart was impressed with Intel's progress with SSE instructions. "The next generation of processors will double the dsp performance by doubling the number of vectors. And we are looking at several times the performance in the future," he concluded.