Intel Extends x86 Architecture into SoC Arena

Progressing the Atom

Progressing the Atom

The Intel Atom processor might be ruling the roost where ultra portable power-efficient mobile computing is needed such as the current popular netbook segment and has even spawned a desktop equivalent, the nettop machine. However popular they may be in the Internet-circle now, these consumer options are just addressing a very small but growing niche user group. The introduction of the Atom is just beginning for this low-powered Intel architecture processor.

Intel has been planning on penetrating the MID and Handheld market segment with the Atom microprocessor, but the CPU is just one part of the equation in the platform. Consider this:- At the moment for any Intel system, be it a server or right down to the netbook/UMPC segment, require 3 major components. They are the CPU, MCH and ICH. Other specialized needs would require yet another dedicated IC like security management. All this will require a lot of PCB real estate and each has varying power requirements too. What we need here is a system-on-chip (SoC) solution. So it's no wonder Intel hasn't made the jump into these segments yet with the Atom.

If you recall sometime ago, Intel was actually supplying the handheld market with its XScale processors. However couple of years back, Intel sold off this architecture to Marvell. So why is Intel trying to return to a segment that it once had a foothold? The simple answer is this:- they dumped a proprietary architecture to streamline engineering resources and focused on the x86 architecture for all their processors in recognition of this ISA's excellent hardware/software support and interoperability (besides the enterprise-level Itaniums of course). Now with the purposeful designed Atom processor that has all the right traits and with the help of Moore's law and the engineers at Intel, Intel will attempt to re-penetrate this segment in the near future. But it's a segment that's already dominated by several players, so we'll have to wait and find out how if Intel's faith in the x86 architecture alone can help them regain and carve themselves a market.

In the process of getting there, today Intel announced their first SoC product with the Intel EP80579 Integrated Processor family (formerly codename Tolapi) targeted squarely at the embedded applications market such as security, communications, storage and industrial products. This is quite a broad field with several entrenched competitors with the likes of Samsung's ARM processors, Texas Instruments and other specialized processors. But because of this large market potential and Intel's already current presence via its other embedded solutions, Intel chose to make a stab in this arena to offer an up-to-date offering which wouldn't require as many complex subsystems as a normal PC and showcase that it can offer a Soc-style x86 solution with specialized and customizable accelerators.