Rugged transportation designs evolve with low-power x86 advances

2New processors blend x86 and Computers-on-Module (COMs) for power-optimized Small Form Factor (SFF) options.

Competitive embedded designs are all about balancing essential requirements like price, performance, development time, longevity, customization, and more. The more options, the better. Yet, in the key area of low power in small, light, and reliable designs, x86 platforms have been challenged by ARM processors (see Sidebar 1, page 19). The Intel evolution continues, however, and developers now have access to a credible option for low-power x86 designs in a very small footprint. The Intel Atom E3800 processor family, formerly known as Bay Trail, is bridging a performance-power-cost gap in x86 and opening a range of new design strategies for embedded markets.

Transportation applications illustrate the value of x86 in low-power system design, capitalizing on flexible Computer-on Module (COM) platforms and Intel Atom advancements. Incorporating new Intel processors, COM Express-based COMs are enabling rugged, low-power designs that meet the rigors of transportation environments. For transportation system developers, adding low power to the familiar environment of x86 design offers tangible competitive value – creating overall benefits beyond power and performance, including simplified software development and access to a well-defined ecosystem.

Intel roadmaps take on gaps in power, performance, and cost

The Intel Atom processor E3800 product family are the first Systems-on-Chip (SoCs) developed for intelligent systems – those embedded systems that are designed to be smarter, securely collecting and sharing sensor data to enable new applications or user experiences. The shift from isolated systems to connected intelligent platforms requires not only performance and connectivity, but also the creative design of smaller, rugged devices. Complex processing and real-time data analysis must be seamless, and the device itself must often be unobtrusive or, at the very least, easily integrated into existing settings such as passenger seating areas or in-vehicle systems. Characteristics of the E3800 product family are specifically suited to these demands, and the series is purpose built to enable design innovation in high-performance, Small Form Factor (SFF) intelligent systems.

The E3800 processor family addresses a specific power-performance need – offering more horsepower than previous Intel Atom processors, and touching the performance of entry-level Intel Core processors. Thermal Design Power (TDP) and footprint are smaller than Intel Core and efficiency is improved over previous generations of the Atom. These small, efficient Intel Atom processors feature 22 nm technology and integrate more efficient CPUs, faster graphics, and a built-in security engine on a chip that draws less than 10 watts of power; the resulting low-power profile is ideal for the non-stop performance demands of intelligent systems. The SoC design also reduces Bill of Materials (BOM), offering a cost advantage in tandem with power and performance gains.

Applying E3800 to transportation design

The primary values of the E3800 product family – improved full-HD media performance, immersive 3D graphics, enhanced secure executions, and reliable and efficient computing – are in precise step with the design challenges facing transportation system developers. This is a diverse and complex embedded design landscape, fragmented by the very nature of global transportation venues but unified in the need for flexible, reliable, long-term performance. Characterized by extreme conditions, non-stop operation, and ever-increasing processing requirements, transportation deployments often cover a broad spectrum of applications, each managing tremendous performance standards while also delivering ideal passenger service, comfort, and safety.

High-performance computing demands continue to grow in transportation markets, based on data-heavy, real-time applications such as wayside controls or networked passenger communications. Yet existing power and thermal envelopes constrain the evolution of these applications, and reduced power is essential to innovate new levels of performance. The Intel Atom E3800 product family addresses this need, enabling light, passively cooled solutions. Further, software compatibility is maintained through a known and proven software toolchain; and the broadest range of communications standards such as Ethernet, Wi-Fi, 3G/LTE, RF, or wired options can be implemented with reliability and security. With expansive options for industrial temperature range components, focus on reliability levels is apparent.

Multimedia is taking a larger role in transportation design as well, with video encode and decode required in applications ranging from high-definition train operator displays to onboard digital signage to individual passenger entertainment systems. The E3800 family’s advancements in visual processing capabilities over previous-generation Intel Atom processors enable faster media conversions, stereoscopic 3D, immersive web browsing, and enhanced HD video transcoding with Gen 7 graphics and highly efficient image processing.

Communications must be continuous, even as systems incorporate multiple connectivity standards and are deployed in varied locations both on and off moving trains and vehicles. The E3800 family’s integration of I/O interfaces is sound – supporting display interfaces with graphics processing, camera interfaces with image processing, audio with Digital Signal Processing (DSP), multiple storage types, and legacy embedded I/O. Expansion capabilities are readily available through industry-standard high-bandwidth interfaces such as PCI Express Gen 2.0, Hi-Speed USB 2.0, and USB 3.0 connectivity.

The Intel Atom E3800 product series features multiple SKUs with quad-, dual-, and single-core offerings that are pin-compatible (Figure 1). These SoCs can handle both single-threaded and multi-threaded processing when more complex computing tasks are required. In addition to being able to handle larger and more demanding processing jobs via multi-threading, good scaling speed improves processing efficiency – essential for the range of data streams coming from sensors, communications, or video applications. When applications are ready for next-generation, low-power performance, E3800-based designs are easily scalable to Intel Core processors within the same architecture.

Integrating x86 with the design value of COMs

Longevity of design is an essential part of product development in this market. While passenger convenience or digital advertising applications are less critical, vital operating and safety applications might be deployed non-stop for decades and beyond. Intel’s predictable roadmap is of particular importance in these ultra-long deployments, protecting technology investments with extended product availability and supply management.

COMs are well suited to ultra-rugged embedded transportation applications by featuring low power and complex processing functions in a very small footprint. Today these platforms incorporate a broad range of x86 processors for advanced power capabilities and further capitalize on new Atom SoCs for customized power-to-performance ratios. The nature of the COM Express standard is such that all computing elements are contained in the off-the-shelf module itself, while all application customization is held in the accompanying carrier board. Customization can be re-used when processors are swapped out to achieve next-generation performance. Based on this design premise, existing applications today can migrate to next-generation performance by changing processors to more advanced versions such as the Intel Atom E3800 product family. For transportation system OEMs, the COM Express platform is ideal for modular, long-life embedded applications with a critical development cycle, as well as more progressive transportation applications that require frequent processor upgrades without affecting other application design elements.

COM Express-based systems are being used to enable transit agencies to communicate with customers and dispatch, maintain fleets, and collect and analyze operating data. Real-world deployment examples include intelligent train and bus networks that rely on smart, COM-based onboard systems, controlling vehicle-run switches, front and rear doors, wheelchair ramps, stop requests, odometers, emergency alarms, and more. Integrated GPS enables recording of driving data and supports both wireless and cellular transmission, and Class A-certified devices allow testing against Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International standards.

Rugged and secure performance

As mentioned, transportation deployments can last decades, performing in the physical extremes of high vibration and shock. In turn, transportation industry standards are rigorous, including specific environmental restrictions intended to ensure passenger safety and non-stop performance under these conditions. Specifications such as EN50155 and many others established by the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC) and the American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) define all characteristics of electronic equipment implemented on rolling stock, working in tandem with other environmental regulations such as onboard fire and smoke protection. Systems must be carefully designed and managed to comply with safety standards (for example, fire hazard reduction), and the Intel Atom E3800 processor family is a viable option for low-power electronics with less thermal output.

Intelligent transportation networks combining rugged COM Express modules with a custom baseboard incorporating an Intel Atom E3800 processor option are proven tolerant to high levels of shock and vibration, and validated for a greater range of operating temperatures. For example, ADLINK’s E3800 COM Express offerings include the cExpress-BT2, cExpress-BT, and nanoX-BT – PICMG COM.0 Rev.2.1 Type 2, Type 6, and Type 10 form factors, respectively — with I/O features typical of x86 architecture: up to 3 PCIe, 2 SATA, and 8 USB ports are provided for scalability in application system layouts (Figure 1). To ensure reliability and stability, all of the modules are verified with international standards for shock and vibration and have an extreme rugged operating temperature range of -40 °C to +85 °C.

Figure 1: The ADLINK cExpress-BT is a 95 mm x 95 mm COM Express compact module built to international standards for harsh environment transportation applications.
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Security is also of essential importance in transportation designs, such as wayside or train control applications, and the E3800 family’s built-in security features can be considered a competitive factor in these applications. For security enhancement and content protection, the E3800 family incorporates Intel Advanced Encryption Standard New Instruction (Intel AES-NI), hardware-assisted encryption instructions to enable faster data encryption and decryption. Data is secured as it moves through the transportation network, and is encrypted up to four times faster than earlier generations. E3800 performance improves with encryption and decryption executed in hardware, in contrast to using software algorithms which are costly in terms of cycling and power consumption.

x86 evolution gives a new look at low power

Embedded evolution marches on, and developers now have access to a credible option for low-power x86 designs in a very small footprint. The Intel Atom E3800 SoCs can help designers work within transportation industry regulations, performance demands, and low-power design requirements, while still developing the high-compute solutions for which x86 is known. Developed to enable high performance, small form factor intelligent systems, the E3800 processor family addresses a specific power-performance need – blending media and compute performance, low TDP, and reduced BOM in a low-power SoC. Transportation designers are capitalizing on these characteristics, developing lightweight, passively cooled solutions supported by a known and trusted software toolchain and next-generation scalability to Intel Core processors.

As global transportation industry requirements continue to expand – encompassing onboard train management and wayside control systems, remote video surveillance and monitoring, broadband Internet access, and a broad range of passenger information and entertainment systems – designers have a greater range of x86 processor options to develop competitive designs that get to market quickly. Using COM architecture to bring out the E3800 feature set, designers have a proven platform to meet the rigors of transportation design, addressing performance and power with simplified software development and a well-defined ecosystem. 

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Dirk Finstel has more than 20 years of in-depth experience in leading embedded computer technology, with a proven track record in embedded modules. Currently the Executive Vice President of ADLINK’s Global Module Computer Product Segment, Finstel has been Chief Technical Officer and a member of the management board of Kontron AG responsible for global technology, as well as research and development and setting technological strategy. He has held executive-level positions at embedded computing companies since he founded Dr. Berghaus GmbH & Co. KG in 1991 and holds a BS in Computer Engineering & Science.

ADLINK Technology, Inc.