Multicore processors offer the best performance and flexibility for applications that are divisible into many small tasks, called threads. In embedded systems, the most common application for these products is networking, because each data packet can usually have its own thread. Packet processing is common in a wide range of networking and communications equipment, including routers, security appliances, storage subsystems, broadband infrastructure, and cellular base stations.
To ease programming, these multicore processors employ general-purpose instruction sets, such as x86, the Power Architecture (PowerPC), MIPS, and ARM. This characteristic distinguishes them from dedicated network processors (NPUs), which use custom instruction sets that are more difficult to program — and from packet-processing ASICs, which are not programmable at all. Most multicore embedded processors also include specialized hardware that accelerates packet-processing tasks. Thus, they are widely favored for complex networking applications that require programmability, customization, and high performance. In addition, these devices are useful for a broad range of embedded systems that require general-purpose programmability.
We estimate the total revenue from general-purpose embedded processors fell 1% in 2015 after two years of growth. This decline was largely due to China’s slowdown in wireless-base-station deployments and a trend toward using more ASICs. Growth took place in other segments, however, such as security, Internet gateways, automotive, industrial, and storage.
Intel still leads the embedded-processor market by revenue. Despite their relatively high power consumption and relatively poor feature integration, Intel’s products offer the industry’s best single-thread performance — a big advantage in control-plane processing. The company’s recent acquisition of Altera, the second-largest FPGA vendor, creates opportunities for future products that integrate embedded processors with programmable logic. In 2015, Intel also became the leading supplier of multicore processors for communications systems — a position held for many years by Freescale, which suffered from the wireless slowdown.
Swept up by a wave of industry consolidation in 2015, Freescale was acquired by NXP. The main motive was to augment NXP’s positions in automotive processors and microcontrollers — markets in which Freescale also excels. But despite the China slowdown, Freescale’s QorIQ embedded processors remain formidable competitors, and the company is rapidly introducing new ARM-based products to supplement the existing Power Architecture chips. Its broad line of high-performance embedded processors addresses many applications.
The third-largest embedded-processor supplier in 2015 was Broadcom, which was acquired by Avago. (The combined company operates as Broadcom Ltd.) This vendor gained share during the year, largely on the success of its ARM-based StrataGX family. The MIPS-compatible XLP family fared less well. Broadcom is pinning future hopes on its Vulcan processors, which will use a new 64-bit ARMv8-compatible CPU that will enable the company to pursue new markets. The first Vulcan chips have yet to appear, however, and the project may be affected by the layoffs, cutbacks, and reorganizations that are following the Avago merger.
Cavium, the fourth-largest embedded-processor supplier, enjoyed in 2015 another year of healthy growth. The MIPS-compatible Octeon chips are the cash cow. Although their relatively simple MIPS64-compatible CPUs lag in single-thread performance, their small size enables Cavium to create large multicore designs — up to 48 CPUs in the largest Octeon III model. Consequently, the company focuses on the data plane, where its many small CPUs and wealth of hardware accelerators are ideal. Cavium also began reaping some revenue in 2015 from its new ThunderX family, which uses custom-designed 64-bit CPUs that are ARMv8 compatible. The largest ThunderX chip also has 48 CPUs.
In addition to the NXP-Freescale and Avago-Broadcom megamergers, Mellanox acquired EZchip, which had recently acquired startup Tilera. These deals could strengthen Tilera’s position and its project to make the world’s largest ARM-based embedded processor, the 100-core Tile-Gx100. In the past, Mellanox has preferred to sell systems and board-level products instead of merchant silicon, so the combined company is mapping a new strategy for 2016 and beyond.
AMD entered the ARM-based embedded-processor market in 2015 with its Opteron A1100 family, and AppliedMicro followed its ARMv8-compatible Helix 1 embedded processors with the second-generation Helix 2. Both product lines have their strong points but face stiff competition from the leading vendors. Nevertheless, they are further signals of the market’s strong shift to ARM by every major vendor except Intel. This transition will continue into the next decade, because many embedded systems have long lifespans, and developers need time to port their software.