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DSP on the desktop

Signal processing on a desktop pc. By Peter Massam.

Confronted with selecting a platform for a dsp algorithm, few engineers would consider the modern pc. Yet a pc’s cpu clock rate can be much higher than that of most dsps and the vector operations which many pc cpus support are comparable to those implemented in dsps.
A key advantage of using a pc platform for digital signal processing is that most engineers have one available. This means algorithm and software design can proceed with a close approximation to the final hardware – long before it is available. Benchmark implementations of key algorithms quickly show whether or not the platform has the required power.
Another advantage is the performance of pc compilers; whilst dsp compilers are frequently very good at optimising loop based code, they are rarely efficient for control code. However, caution is necessary because of the variety of pc processors – support for vector operations may vary greatly and details of the cache system will impact performance.
PCs usually have more memory than a typical dsp based system, which can be an advantage for some dsp algorithms: a modern pc’s multiple cache layers means relatively slow (and cheap) memory may be used and the cache system is well understood by compilers, which means they can use it efficiently most of the time. Cache systems are, nevertheless, complex and this can be a disadvantage if data processing loops need to be optimised beyond the compiler’s capabilities.
DSP algorithms usually require access to a few simple hardware devices, and their drivers are rarely complicated. However, the algorithms are just one part of a system that must usually communicate through more complex channels. This task is frequently left to a separate controller, but if the two elements of the system are to be combined on to a single platform, then a pc based solution becomes attractive.

Peter Massam

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