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Qualcomm applies its ‘DNA’ to create a processor for the connected home

The Internet of Things (IoT) is manifesting itself in a range of guises, but the underlying theme – whether it's consumer or industrial applications – is connectivity.

There have been a large number of studies hoping to predict just how quickly the sector might develop. One of the first, by Ericsson, suggested there would be 50billion connected devices by 2020. While the market hasn't developed at quite the expected rate, the IoT offers significant opportunity to device and application developers. And the connected home is one of those opportunities.

At a recent investors' meeting, Qualcomm's chairman Paul Jacobs explained why. "The connected home is a great opportunity. Today, there are roughly seven connected devices per home; by 2020, we expect this will have risen to 22. Apps will be built," he said, "and an ecosystem created."

Steve Mollenkopf, chief executive, picked up the theme. "We're taking the first of many steps where smartphone and networking technology will blend together; our mobile DNA will be moving into non traditional areas."

The first example of this is the launch of the Qualcomm Internet Processor, or IPQ. "It might be surprising to see a mobile processor in an internet processor," he continued, "but power consumption is important and will be one of the key selling points. You will see more of this as Qualcomm's vision of everything being connected develops."

Simon Brand, senior director of product management, explained more about the IPQ in an exclusive interview with New Electronics. "We came up with the smart home concept a few years ago. Smartphones have mobile capability and make a range of resources available through an API to a development community, making the phones more interesting to consumers. Our intention is to make the same transition in the home."

According to Brand, the IPQ is set to be a pivotal device. "If you want to connect devices in the home, a network processor has the range of connectivity to support that. Using our DNA concept, connected devices can link to higher level software."

As Mollenkopf pointed out, the IPQ is based around mobile phone technology. The device is powered by a dual core Krait processor and Qualcomm has initially developed two versions of IPQ: the IPQ8064, in which each core runs at 1.4GHz; and the IPQ8062, in which the cores run at 1GHz.

Power will be an important criterion for the emerging sector, Brand said. "The devices which will be built around the IPQ will need to be always on. That means the IPQ needs to have low active power consumption and sleep modes."

The Krait processor core was found to fit the bill. The Krait cores in the IPQ are identical to those found in Qualcomm's Snapdragon processors, which power a range of smartphones. Brand noted: "We licensed the core from ARM, but it's a Qualcomm implementation. It enables the chip to offer a lot of DMIPS while consuming lower levels of power." According to Brand, the two Krait cores will offer 'around 10DMIPS'. "Developers will be able to do great things with this power," he contended.

Qualcomm believes the IPQ will enable home networking equipment to do more than just deliver broadband connections. Providing examples, it says the part will enable service providers to expand revenue opportunities by delivering new content, applications and services, whilst allowing OEMs to provide differentiated, value add capabilities in such areas as home automation and control.

But even with a dual processor core capable of offering 10DMIPS of processing power, there is still the potential that the CPUs could 'run out of steam'. "So, in addition to the Krait cores, we've included a dual core network accelerator capable of offloading some of the processing requirements," Brand said. "It will make some of the Krait's MIPS available for other tasks."

The network accelerator is a multithreaded dual core, based on technology developed by Ubicom, which was acquired by Qualcomm in 2012 (see below). "It's dedicated to network acceleration," said Brand, "with the cores accelerating traffic based on firmware." Both cores run at 730MHz and allow the IPQ to support up to 5Gbit/s of aggregate capacity.

"We could have accomplished this in hardware or in a programmable fashion," Brand added, "but it's basically an approach which some people call software defined networking." Alongside the network accelerator cores, the IPQ also boasts a range of encryption features, handled by by a security engine.

Connectivity is an important aspect of the IPQ and Qualcomm has equipped the device with a range of links, including LTE, IEEE802.11ac Wi-Fi, HomePlug powerline (HPAV2 in fig 1) and hybrid wired/wireless. Other interfaces include PCIe, USB 3.0, SATA3, SDIO and gigabit Ethernet. The company says this will enable a broad range of products to be created, whilst cutting platform development time across product lines.

Supporting the lower power consumption of the Krait cores, Qualcomm is manufacturing the IPQ on TSMC's 28LP process, something which the company says brings a 70% increase in performance per Watt over 'the nearest competitor'. Although the cores can run at 1.4GHz, dynamic scaling allows performance to be matched to the immediate requirements.

"One thing we have tried to do is to introduce a disruptive platform," Brand offered. "We want to be ahead of the curve and offer developers the ability to do something that couldn't be done before."

IPQ devices are sampling and, said Brand, are a 'couple of weeks' away from full production. Lead customers are also said to be well into their development phase and Brand expects to see products appearing in the coming months. Some of these companies were showing IPQ based demonstrators at the recent Consumer Electronics Show.

What else might the IPQ enable? Brand believes it has the potential to do a lot of things. "Early applications will include home gateways," he said, "but it will expand into other applications, including enterprise products, Wi-Fi in the office and devices aimed at the SoHo market.

Leveraging acquired technology
The dual core network accelerator featured in the IPQ network processor (see fig 1) is based on technology developed by Ubicom, which was acquired by Qualcomm in 2012.

Qualcomm's senior director of product management Simon Brand describes the network accelerator as a multithreaded block dedicated to network acceleration.

When New Electronics talked with Ubicom in 2007 about its IP5000 network processor, we got a glimpse of the functionality now appearing in the IPQ. Kevin Gee, who was Ubicom's senior product manager at the time, said the company was 'ahead of the game' in that it had anticipated developments in the market. He said home networking equipment had previously been designed to move data around the home at low data rates because that data wasn't time critical.

But he saw bandwidth requirements changing because of different applications appearing, including gaming and video on demand. "It's a whole different world," Gee observed.

To cope with this, Ubicom developed 10 way multithreading in hardware and an instruction set created 'specifically for networking'. Each thread could be real time or non real time, bringing determinism. Also featured in the IP5000 was quality of service functionality.

Graham Pitcher

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