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Crossover Embedded Processors

Ulrich Schmidt Photo
The role of security in the new era of IoT innovations

Bridging the gap between performance and usability

At the heart of thousands of smart, connected IoT products are embedded processors which have a unique ability to deliver tailored functionality and performance. As we look ahead at the expanding possibilities of a connected world, driven by the promise of edge computing with embedded artificial intelligence, we find an increasing need for low-power embedded solutions that are cost-effective and scalable, but also deliver high performance computation, security, and enhanced user experience. Traditional embedded processors address some of these needs but are limited in scalability across all the applications. We believe that scalability gap can be bridged, but it requires breaking the boundary between applications processors and MCUs to create a new class of ‘crossover’ embedded processors. The proposed crossover processors are applications processors built with an MCU core, architected to deliver high performance and functional capabilities of applications processors, but with the ease-of-use and real-time low-power operation of traditional MCUs.

For many years, embedded processing has fallen into two distinct camps based on the necessity of the design. Situations calling for affordable and flexible usability would rely on MCUs. Designs that exceeded the capacity of an MCU would instead turn to an applications processor. However, it has not been easy for embedded designers to seamlessly scale across MCUs and applications processors. Typical pain points that the embedded designers face today when deciding between an MCU and an applications processor, include:

  • Needing capabilities beyond what an MCU can offer (greater performance, more displays, increased connectivity options), without increasing cost or complexity
  • Lacking experienced staff and/or budgetary resources to support Linux-based applications processor designs
  • Requiring both a real-time system and applications processor-level of performance and integration
  • Having to reduce overall bill-of-materials cost in an applications processor-based design, while maintaining the performance level

We believe that the evolution of the smarter, connected world should be driven by innovation and not by a constrained choice between an MCU and an applications processor. Embedded product designers should be able to freely choose a processor that best delivers the innovation in their designs, rather than have the processor choice limit the innovation that is possible in their end design. The flexibility to scale across MCUs and applications processors is possible, but it requires a new class of crossover processors that break down the technological chasm between high-end MCUs and low-end applications processors. These crossover processors targeted for consumer, industrial and the growing IoT applications, deliver performance, functionality and capabilities of an applications processor-based design, but with the ease-of-use, low-power, and real-time operation with low interrupt latency of an MCU-based design. Furthermore, the crossover processors are architected to lower overall system cost by eliminating the need for embedding flash, external DDR memories and power management ICs.

Image of Crossover Embedded Processors

Crossover processors are built using applications processors chassis, delivering a high level of integration, high speed peripherals, enhanced security, and engines for enhanced user experience (for example, 2D/3D graphics); but powered by a low-power MCU core running a real-time operating system like RTOS. Crossover processing, therefore, defines a new, much-needed space in the market by helping MCU customers move up to applications processor-level of performance while staying with their current tool chain—and potentially without having to add time, cost, or complexity of Linux (or other higher level operating systems) software development to their product design cycle.

Building upon our decades of leadership experience in providing both MCUs and applications processors for the consumer, industrial, and the IoT markets, NXP has developed a new series of embedded processors that fully embodies all the features of crossover described in the sections above. The new i.MX RT crossover series processors are based on ARM® Cortex®-M7 core but architected from the versatile i.MX 6ULL applications processor. The i.MX RT processors offer the first solutions in the market that truly bridge the gap between MCUs and applications processors. They bring applications processor-level performance into the MCU world in support of real-time, performance-intensive processing functions such as camera and display capabilities.

The i.MX RT series can operate at a core speed of up to 600 MHz (as opposed to existing MCUs with a maximum speed of 400 MHz). This is the highest performing Cortex-M7 solution, delivering 3036.5 CoreMark® (~ 5 CM/MHz) 1284 DMIPS (> 2 DMIPS/MHz). The i.MX RT series also boasts ultra-fast real-time responsiveness thanks to a high density of 512KB TCM SRAM. The interrupt latency is as low as 20 nanoseconds and is the shortest interrupt latency of any ARM Cortex-based product in the world thanks to a combination of high performance and the Cortex-M7 core. All told, i.MX RT crossover processors outperform competitors by a factor of 2x.

Image of i.MX RT Block Diagram

The i.MX RT series supports product designs that include advanced multimedia for GUI and enhanced human machine interface (HMI) experience. Its features include advanced 2D graphics acceleration engine, LCD display controllers, camera sensor interfaces, and audio interfaces for high-performance, multi-channel audio streaming. Just as described above, i.MX RT series of crossover processors support greater design flexibility through extensive external memory interface options, including NAND, eMMC, QuadSPI NOR Flash and Parallel NOR Flash. By having high speed interfaces between external memory, combined with on-the-fly decryption enables secure external data storage, the need for embedded flash is eliminated. In terms of connectivity, i.MX RT crossover processors offer support for both wired (Ethernet, USB, etc.) and wireless standards such as Wi-Fi®, Bluetooth®, BLE, Zigbee®, Thread™, and other options; making thousands of applications for the connected world possible.

The i.MX RT series is designed to make it easy for MCU-based developers to use these new class of crossover processors without having to make significant investment into developing new SW enablement or investing to learn higher level operating systems, like Linux or Android. Current MCU customers can significantly increase performance capabilities using i.MX RT series while leveraging their current toolchain (e.g., MCUXpresso, IAR and Keil). i.MX RT also enables rapid prototyping and development with Amazon FreeRTOS, SDK, Zyphr® OS, ARM® mbed™ and the global ARM ecosystem which provide software libraries and online tools and support. Development can be accelerated even further by using the low-cost evaluation kit (EVK) compatible with Arduino™ hardware shields. In addition, i.MX RT solutions incorporate a single-voltage input to simplify power circuit design.

The purposeful intersection of performance and usability features allow crossover solutions to target a range of specific applications that were previously underserved in some capacities by both applications processor and MCU products. Some applications where crossover processors can be of tremendous difference, but not limited to, are:

Audio Subsystem designs for high-end, consumer audio devices, including specialty equipment such as guitar pedals.
General Embedded designs for mass-market applications such as metering, medical equipment, vending machines, and IoT gateways.
Human Machine Interface (HMI) graphics capabilities for home and building automation (e.g., HVAC climate control, security, lighting control panels), industrial computing designs (e.g., EBS, PLCs, factory automation, test and measurement, M2M, HMI control, assembly line robotics), and consumer products (e.g, smart appliances, cameras, LCDs and other high-end displays).
Motor Control and Power Conversion for professional appliances like 3D printers, thermal printers, and drones—as well as consumer products, such as robotic vacuum cleaners.

The increasing demand for efficient, high-performance embedded processing that can deliver an enhanced user experience and high data processing power without increasing costs and power consumption has created a gap within the embedded processor space. To address this gap, we have introduced a new class of embedded processors that deliver performance levels and security capabilities that are typical of applications processors, but with the ease of use, real-time operation, and low-power capabilities of MCUs. The i.MX RT crossover processors are our answer to a growing market need, architected to provide highest performance, cost-effective embedded solution for the growing smarter, secure connected world.

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About Author

Ulrich Schmidt Photo
Ulrich Schmidt

Ulrich started his carrier in 1990 as System Engineer at Texas Instruments in the RF-ID Division. Fr...

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