Trends in microprocessors: high-end military embedded applications are beginning a shift to Intel

By John Keller

When it comes to military embedded computing, basically only two microprocessor manufacturers slug it out for the lion’s share of the defense and aerospace embedded computer market for applications like radar processing—Freescale Semiconductor Inc. in Austin, Texas, and Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif.

While Freescale has been this market’s 500-pound gorilla for some time, Intel’s latest introduction of its Core i7 microprocessor in January is tipping the defense embedded systems community on its head in a transformation the likes of which seasoned observers have not seen in years.

The newest Core i7 “is unlike anything we’ve got,” says Frank Willis, director of military and aerospace product development at GE Intelligent Platforms in Albuquerque, N.M. “It’s going to set the standard for performance as we move ahead. This gives Intel unbelievable capability and entry into the market.”

Sure, there are plenty of other important microprocessor makers—Advanced Micro Devices Inc. (AMD) of Sunnyvale, Calif.; ARM Inc. of Los Gatos, Calif.; Cavium Networks of Mountain View, Calif.; and MIPS Technologies Inc. of Mountain View, Calif. among them—but for military embedded applications, Freescale primarily, and to a lesser extent Intel, have been the processors of choice.

Of the leading two companies, Freescale by far has been the more dominant over the past several years based on its marquee embedded microprocessor, the Power PC (and later Power Architecture) with the AltiVec floating point and integer SIMD instruction set—for applications like radar, sonar, and signals intelligence that need floating-point processing.

The performance, flexibility, and power consumption of the Power Architecture has kept Freescale on the top of the mountain for a long time, and not just because of floating-point processing. The Power Architecture also fits well with the VME backplane databus that has dominated military embedded computing for much of the chip’s reign.

Aerospace and defense systems designers, despite getting what they needed from Freescale, always wanted an alternative source of microprocessors, just in case Freescale changed their microprocessor architectures.

For a while, defense and aerospace embedded computer makers hung their hopes on a company in Santa Clara, Calif., called P.A. Semi as an alternative to Freescale. P.A. Semi experts were developing a powerful and power-efficient Power Architecture processor called PWRficient, which met their needs. Hopes were dashed, however, when Apple Computer acquired P.A. Semi, and took P.A. Semi products off the open market.

Then the fears of high-end military systems designers were realized. Freescale, in a bid to dominate the cell phone and handheld appliance market, decided to abandon AltiVec and floating-point capability in its latest generation of microprocessors, which dropped a monkey wrench into long-term planning among the military embedded computing companies. “The Freescale PowerPC roadmap is dead-ended now at AltiVec,” says Doug Patterson, vice president of marketing at Aitech Defense Systems Inc. in Chatsworth, Calif.

Then Intel quietly made it known that help was on the way; the company was working on a high-performance, low-power chip with floating-point capability. Embedded computer designers made plans to take advantage.

Intel formally altered the balance in January 2010 with its announcement of the latest-generation Core i7 microprocessor with floating-point capability. Several embedded computing products aimed at aerospace and defense applications were introduced within hours of the Intel Core i7 introduction, with additional products coming out nearly every day afterwards.

“The biggest feature of the Core i7 is the floating-point performance,” says Ben Klam, vice president of engineering at Extreme Engineering Solutions (X-ES) in Middleton, Wis. “Now they are getting into lower-power embedded applications with good performance, which will help any military applications that benefit from floating point, like radar and signal processing.”

None of this is to say that Freescale will not be part of aerospace and defense applications in the future; far from it.

Steve Edwards, chief technology officer at Curtiss-Wright Controls Embedded Computing in Leesburg, Va., says the military and aerospace embedded computing market essentially has three components—high-end digital signal processing (DSP) applications; general-purpose processing; and low-power mobile applications.

Edwards says Intel may well come to dominate military DSP applications in the near term because of the Core i7’s floating-point capability, yet he sees continued vigorous competition between Intel and Freescale in general-purpose processing and low-power embedded computing applications.

General-purpose processing in aerospace and defense applications “is split between the Power Architecture and Intel,” Edwards says. “We see a huge market for the Freescale Power Architecture for highly integrated applications that need multiple cores, Ethernet controllers, and very small-footprint solutions.”

General-purpose processing applications moving into the Intel camp, meanwhile, favor Intel’s tie-in with the Windows desktop operating system, other commercial software with familiar man-machine interfaces, and embedded Linux, he says.

Low-power applications such as man-portable systems and small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) payloads also should remain a tossup between Intel and Freescale in the future, Edwards says, as both companies offer equivalent products.

In high-end DSP applications, however, aerospace and defense systems designers are coming out with distinct preferences for the new Intel microprocessor. “The bar for this capability has been set,” says GE’s Willis. “You will have to see Freescale step up to this level to stay competitive.”

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