ARM, Freescale and IBM offer a platform for industrial IoT

ARM is trying to make its mbed OS, its fairly new operating system for the internet of things, a little more business-friendly by debuting a ready-made platform consisting of a development board, the software and the cloud back-end services at the Embedded World show in Germany on Monday.

The IoT starter kit consists of an ARM mbed-enabled development board from Freescale running an ARM Cortex M4 based processor. The actual mbed OS won’t be out in public beta until October, so until then the board is mbed-enabled running the underlying mbed systems level software. The board connects directly to IBM’s BlueMix cloud service, and you can then port data from the board to the IBM IoT Foundation service, which acts as a kind of home for IoT data in IBM’s cloud.

In a chat with Freescale’s Director of Marketing John Dixon, he called it, “an Arduino for the industrial internet,” which is a nice way of thinking about the product or the range of mbed OS-enabed products that could arise out of similar partnerships. Much like how Arduino-boards let anyone build hardware and learn to muck about with physical devices, these platforms are designed to let people do the same — only the type of partners, robust data back ends and security mean you could use the same platform to build 10 or 10,000,000 of the devices.

The deal with IBM isn’t exclusive, according to ARM’s Zach Shelby, VP of marketing. He said the company will likely design deals with other cloud providers and build an ecosystem of companies as it attempts to strengthen the mbed OS ecosystem. So far, he said there are 100,000 developers using mbed and more than 45 development boards, and he said he believes most of those are professionals as opposed to hobbyists.

Most of the applications that are being built with ARM’s mbed development kits so far are smart city related followed by Bluetooth beacon products, Shelby said. Even without the formal mbed OS, ARM is putting together the right elements with a development board, consistent software and the cloud back end. Canonical is racing to do something similar as are others, so we’ll see how all of this plays out.

ARM launches a faster, more efficient chip design for smartphones

Nearly every single smartphone sold last year uses a processor originally designed by ARM. On Tuesday, the British company announced new processor designs that will likely end up in devices in 2016.

ARM announced a new CPU chip design and a new GPU chip design. The new CPU is going to be called the Cortex A72, and it should replace the Cortex A15 and Cortex A57 as the “big” CPU for high-performance smartphones and tablets.

Remember that ARM encourages its customers — chipmakers — to lay out its processor cores in what it calls a “Big.Little” configuration. Fast and power-hungry cores handle jobs when single-core performance is important, and other tasks are delegated to the “little” core, which uses less power. The A72 will be a “big” core for most of ARM’s customers, and will likely be paired with the A52 design as its “little.”

Currently, devices sporting ARM’s A57 design are just starting to hit the market, usually in devices with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 810 chip. Many of last year’s high-end devices are using the A15. According to ARM, the A72 boasts performance 3.5 times better than the A15. More importantly for mobile devices, the A72 will use 75 percent less energy as the A15 on the same workload and will integrate with ARM’s other designs such as those for GPUs, display controllers, and video controllers.

“For our customers that do want to take all the pieces, it will all glue together and will be optimized in a very good way,” Ian Ferguson, ARM VP for marketing, said.

ARM says it’s optimized the A72 design to be fabricated on TSMC’s 16nm process, although other fabs — like Samsung, which is bragging about a new 14nm process — will also be able to produce the design. Ten chipmakers have already licensed the A72 design, including MediaTek, Rockchip, and High Silicon. The A72 is a 64-bit chip but 32-bit apps can run on it without modification.

ARM’s new GPU design is called Mali-T880, and it promises nearly double the performance of the Mali-T760, which is included in devices on sale today, while using 40 percent less energy on the same jobs. There’s also a new security feature called Trustzone, which eliminates backdoors for devices decrypting streamed 4K content.

“If studios are going to trust the streaming of data to these devices at the same time premium content is appearing in theaters, that content has to be secured,” Ferguson said. “With Trustzone, as the information comes down in encrypted form on the handset, it will go to the display without any backdoors to pull off that content and use it in other ways.”

ARM believes that mobile GPUs will soon be used for certain non-graphics computational tasks like speech recognition locally on smartphones. “We’re approaching the time for [general processing] GPU computing. That world is coming,” Ferguson said.

Unfortunately, although these new designs are available today, ARM hasn’t discussed specific technical details, but promises that information is coming in April.

Raspberry Pi gets 6x the power, 2x the memory and still costs $35

Makers, academics and generally anyone who likes to play with computers: get ready for some awesomesauce. Raspberry Pis, the tiny Linux computers that currently sell for $35 are getting a makeover that will give a tremendous boost to their compute power and double their memory while still keeping their price the same.

The Pi 2 boards will be available today, and Pi creator and CEO of Raspberry Pi (Trading) Ltd. Eben Upton says the organization has already built 100,000 units, so buyers shouldn’t have to wait like they did at the original Pi launch. The Pi 2 will have the following specs:

  • SoC : Broadcom BCM2836 (CPU, GPU, DSP, SDRAM, and single USB port)
  • CPU: 900 MHz quad-core ARM Cortex A7 (ARMv7 instruction set)
  • GPU: Broadcom VideoCore IV @ 250 MHz, OpenGL ES 2.0 (24 GFLOPS), 1080p30 MPEG-2 and VC-1 decoder (with license), 1080p30 h.264/MPEG-4 AVC high-profile decoder and encoder
  • Memory: 1 GB (shared with GPU)
  • Total backwards compatibility (in terms of multimedia, form-factor and interfacing) with Pi 1

This is a significant expansion of the Pi’s capabilities, although I’ve stopped being surprised at how far hobbyists have taken the original platform. In a blog post for Broadcom, Upton wrote:

[blockquote person=”” attribution=””]Raspberry Pi 2 has enough raw computing power to do anything that a PC can — surf the Web, word processing, spreadsheet algorithms and more; we expect to see a lot of you using it as a general-purpose productivity machine. We’re really pleased with it — and we think that our community of fans, developers, educators and industrial customers will agree.
[/blockquote]

When I emailed Upton to ask how he managed to keep the price so low while adding so much to the performance he said that shaving off a few cents on other components paid off. “We were able to hold the? price by paying a lot of attention to the little things (the price of an HDMI connector, the exact finish on the PCB),” he wrote. “We ended up finding a few tens of things each of which saved $0.10, and then spending all those savings in one go on more RAM and CPU performance.”

The Pi 2 uses a Broadcom chip, much like the original Pi did. The new Broadcom SoC is called the BCM2836 and it has the same VideoCore multimedia with a lot more CPU power.

And for those in the U.S. hoping to see more Pi action in their kids’ schools, Upton also told me that the Foundation has hired its first U.S. employee and is hoping to do a lot more with the U.S. education system in 2015. That’s great news, because Upton actually created the Pi with kids in mind. His goal was to get them excited about hardware, coding and computers the way he was inspired back in the day by the Commadore 64 platform. You can check out his commentary on this and more form his appearance at one of our conferences in 2013. It’s an excellent talk.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=emQuoPF3Rsc&w=560&h=315]

Ambiq Micro has made a chip that consumes 10 times less energy

Ambiq Micro, a semiconductor company in Austin, Texas, has been working for the last five years to build a lower-power chip by applying to silicon a technology that has been used in quartz wristwatches. It has finally managed to do so in high-enough densities and manufacturing volume to make it worth the consumer electronic industry’s time.

On Monday, it launched its Apollo microcontroller, which can lower the power consumption of the tiny chips used inside wearable devices by as much as 10 times in wake mode and 38 times in sleep mode depending on the type of ARM core used inside the chip. For the consumer, this means a battery life for a smart watch or activity tracker that could last for weeks or months longer than the current standard.

Ambiq manages these lower wattages by never going above a certain voltages when sending power through the chip. Most chips send their signaling information, which determines if it is sending zeros or ones, at between 1 and 1.8 volts, but the Ambiq chip sends its information .5 volts. That means it uses much less energy overall. Ambiq has built out this technology on about $30 million in funding.

It does this without requiring fancy changes in manufacturing or a new way of writing software, which means it can be designed into existing products easily. Ambiq VP of Marketing Mike Salas says he expects to see Ambiq microcontrollers in shipping products by the middle of the year. Its microcontrollers will compete with those already on the market from Atmel, ST Microelectronics and other large chipmakers.

Salas also says that for customers of Ambiq the change in power consumption mean manufacturers can advertise longer battery life, or they could use smaller batteries and then design smaller enclosures for their electronics. As a woman who finds almost all of the smart watches on the market today to be too large, I’d love to see a slightly more delicate form factor using a smaller battery and more power-efficient chip.

Update: This story was corrected on 1/21/2015 to change Mike Salas’ title. He is VP of Marketing, not the CEO.

Qualcomm aims to build server chips that power the data center

Qualcomm is moving beyond mobile chips and will target the data center market with new server-chips, according to Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf. Mollenkopf detailed the mobile chip-maker’s plans during its annual analyst day meeting in New York City, reported Barron’s.

Qualcomm’s first 64-bit CPU targets lower-end smartphones

Qualcomm is following Apple and Intel down the 64-bit rabbit hole, announcing today a new version of its Snapdragon processor supporting the new advanced computing architecture. Don’t expect these new chips in high-end devices, though.

FABulous! Intel is making ARM chips on its production line

For the last few years Intel has had a small line of business manufacturing other companies’ chips — mostly expensive custom chips for companies like Altera and Tabula. This foundry business is getting a publicity boost today as Altera said Intel will let it embed ARM-based cores in chips made on Intel’s hallowed x86 production lines. This is a big deal, not because ARM is Kryptonite to Intel, but because it could signal that Intel under its new CEO is ready to open its fab operations and make that a bigger part of its business. That’s the huge shift for Intel, not that it might make a few ARM-based chips.