AMP: Freescale’s answer to exploding Internet traffic

by Junko Yoshida , TechOnline India - June 22, 2011

Freescale Semiconductor is rolling out a new-generation multi-core platform called the Advanced Multiprocessing (AMP) series.

Texas – Calling it the company’s biggest announcement of the last three years aimed at the networking segment, Freescale Semiconductor is rolling out a new- generation multi-core platform called the Advanced Multiprocessing (AMP) series. 

The new platform, based on a multi-threaded 64-bit Power Architecture core, uses up to 24 virtual cores. It integrates a host of  acceleration engines and power management systems to boost performance and power efficiency. Further, Freescale is offering the AMP series of QorIQ processors at a 28-nm process node, by skipping the 32nm-process technology generation entirely.

In the communications products market ranging from wireless to wired infrastructure and data centers, “the trend is clear,” said Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager of networking and multimedia at Freescale. “Internet traffic is exploding faster than Moore’s Law.”

When the IP traffic is flying off the scale, the communications industry is in desperate need of “comms processors that can improve the performance by three to four times,” she added.

Earlier this year, Freescale unveiled a scalable multimode wireless base station processor family, dubbed QorIQ Qonverge. Designed to scale from small cells (Femto and Pico) to large cells (Metro and Macro), it shares a common architecture by using the company’s proven  multi-core communication processor,

multi-core DSPs and baseband accelerators.

Describing it as “based on similar ideas,” Freescale’s new AMP series is “designed to cover the rest of the communications market – from low-end to high-end segments,” said Su.

Freesacle, all the while, offers its customers code compatibility with all QorIQ, QorIQ Qonverge and PowerQUICC processors, intended to help ease the migration. As Su put it, in each of product, Freescale offers “intelligence integration,” allowing its SoC’s building blocks – power, scalability, density of Power Architecture cores, acceleration engines and others – to be configured and optimized for a specific product in a broader communications market.

Freescale plans to offer the AMP series in three levels of products: control plane processors for service provider routers and storage networks; high-end data plane processors ideal for routers, switches, access gateways and mil/aero application; and low-end data plane processors targeting media gateways, network attached storage and integrated services routers. Each product will feature a varying number of cores, varying degrees of parallelism, different programmable requirements, and different application acceleration and power

performance.

Speaking of a broad array of the AMP-series of communications processors, John Dixon, Freescale’s marketing manager of Power product/DSP, said: “Our goal is not just meeting with the needs of top 15 [networking equipment] customers but developing solutions for the next thousands of customers as well.”

In the long run, the scalability and software compatibility among Freescale’s communications processors may be just the thing that differentiates its products from competitors’. Joseph Byrne, a senior analyst at The Linley Group, noted, “The general idea [of software compatibility] is that it is easier for an OEM to use a compatible family of processors throughout a product line than a different type of processor for each design, because software is more easily reused among members of a compatible family.” He added, “Broadly speaking, it also gives third-party tools and software developers a broader base of products to support, making it economical for the ecosystem to support the family.”

At the heart of the AMP series

Compared with other processors on the market today, Byrne said that “AMP provides more performance.” He added, “An unusual, if not unique feature, is the inclusion of a SIMD unit (AltiVec).”

At the heart of Freescale’s QorIQ AMP series sits a new multithreaded, 64-bit Power Architecture e6500 core running at up to 2.5 GHz. Indeed, the e6500 core incorporates an enhanced version of the high-performance AltiVec vector processing unit. Until e6500, Freescale had not included AltiVec in its Power Architecture core-based communication processors.

The AltiVec engine, however, has already proven effective in such applications as radar and sonar, explained Freescale’s Dixon. When so many different events are happening across cores, he added that the AltiVec will be also effective for networking customers who have real-time scheduling needs. AltiVec addresses high-bandwidth data processing and algorithmic-intensive computations, delivering DSP-level performance to customers.

The first product among QorIQ AMP series

Freescale’s T4240 device, the first product in the QorIQ AMP series, will target networking, industrial and military/aerospace markets.

The T4240, scheduled for sampling early 2012, incorporates various hardware accelerators. It’s armed with 12 dual-threaded e6500 cores, providing 24 threads to address high-end data plane processing applications. Dual-threaded efficiency, improved DMIPs per thread and higher frequency deliver “4x performance gain and more than 2x power efficiency gain over the previous-generation QorIQ P4080 device,” according to Freescale. Advanced capabilities allow for intelligent

sharing and duplication of resources between threads and a larger amount of on-die cache per core, the company said.

“In the networking space, the [T4240] devices are designed to address the packet processing and power consumption challenges driven by explosive growth in IP traffic that is expected over next several years,” observed Abhi Dugar, research manager for IDC’s wired communications semiconductor research.

Dugar noted, “Expect QorIQ AMP to be deployed for control and data plane

applications in wireless and wireline communications equipment that is used in cellular infrastructure, mobile back haul, enterprise, and data center environments.” He added, “Since these are programmable devices, the same products are applicable in industrial and military applications.”

Examples in the industrial market include: “Smart Grid, data aggregation, metering, and Factory Automation,” Said Dugar. “For the defense/military market, QorIQ AMP devices can be used to build high performance rugged, single board computers (SBCs) in space and weight constrained environments.”

Competitive landscape

So, who is exactly Freescale competing against in the networking area?

IDC’s Dugar observed that their competitors are high-performance microprocessor vendors such as Intel, as well as SoC vendors like Cavium and Netlogic, who are building application specific devices around the MIPS processor core.

Some of the other key competitors in this space include LSI Corp, PMC-Sierra and Applied Micro, he added. “There are also a small number of privately held companies with proprietary architectures that compete against the QorIQ AMP series.” The Linley Group’s Bryne believes that it’s worth keeping an eye on Tilera.

While “any comparison is problematic as it involves comparing products that are sampling today with something from Freescale that will not sample for some time,” Bryne said, “With respect to packet processing, [Cavium Networks’] Octeon II CN6880 and [NetLogic’s] XLP832 offer about the same performance as the AMP T4240.”

Byrne added, “[Freescale’s] AMP, however, will probably deliver more CPU performance at the same time in most cases. Compared with Octeon, AMP's CPUs are faster, support threading, and have more cache. Compared with XLP, AMP has more CPUs. Neither of these rivals has anything like AltiVec.”

Freescale isn’t alone in integrating higher number of cores at higher clock frequencies into the communications processor SoCs.

IDC’s Dugar said that Intel is doing the same with its high end processors such as Sandy Bridge.  However, “Freescale's new e6500 processor core and more integration of hardware off-load engines into the QorIQ AMP Series SoCs are important steps forward for Freescale to maintain its leading market share,” Dugar noted.

Will the advanced process technology be as important an advantage as Freescale is claiming?

Unlike the QorIQ AMP Series, none of Freescale’s competitors have announced 28nm products yet. “But it is inevitable its competitors will also do so, most likely later this year,” Dugar said.

Intel is the only exception in this regard with their announcement at the last IDF of Ivy Bridge, the codename for the 22-nm die shrink of its 32nm Sandy Bridge. It will use Intel's tri-gate transistor technology which is expected in approximately the same time frame as QorIQ AMP  early next year, Dugar pointed out. “However, Intel's solution is a microprocessor, not a SoC. It requires an external chipset.”

In IDC’s Dugar’s opinion, “the MIPS architecture-based vendors will come under greater pressure now to differentiate not only against Power Architecture from Freescale and x86 from Intel, but also between themselves.”

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