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Intel’s Atom-based Tunnel Creek SOC with integrated PCIe interface opens new era for embedded developers

Comments(0)One of the most ignored Intel announcements of recent memory must be Doug Davis’ early disclosure at IDF (China) on April 14 (see the hour-long keynote video here) of the company’s new Atom-based Tunnel Creek, an SOC specifically designed for embedded applications. Intel’s Atom processor, a relatively low-powered implementation of the “Intel Architecture,” has been taking the low-end notebook and netbook world by storm. Atom processors also work well and have been rapidly adopted in the embedded world when the embedded product’s block-diagram resembles a PC. However, smaller embedded systems can’t adopt the multichip, chipset-style design of PCs. Many smaller embedded systems require even fewer chips for cost-effective implementation.

Enter Intel’s Tunnel Creek, which sports four x1 lanes of PCIe in addition to the Atom processor core; memory, audio, and video controllers; and an LPC block. The simple addition of a flexible PCIe interface means that embedded designers can gluelessly add a variety of different chips to the Tunnel Creek SOC to create embedded designs with minimal BOMs.

Intel Tunnel Creek block digram

Figure 1: Intel Tunnel Creek block diagram
What can you connect to a PCIe interface that would be useful in an embedded design? Here are just a few ideas that immediately come to mind:

  1. An ASSP with a PCIe interface. In the same talk where he disclosed Tunnel Creek, Davis also mentioned that Intel will be developing more than one application-specific I/O hub for specific use with Tunnel Creek. In addition, there are many other likely candidates already on the market such as advanced video/graphics controllers from companies such as nVidia and fast Ethernet controllers from companies such as Realtek.
  2. An FPGA. Both Xilinx and Altera offer FPGAs with integral PCIe interfaces. Imagine the ability to gluelessly graft an FPGA directly to an Intel Atom-based SOC. Tunnel Creek should be able to do that.
  3. An SSD. You can get PCIe-based SSDs that provide more performance than SATA- or SAS-interfaced SSDs because the PCIe interface is more efficient for high-speed I/O than disk-centric interface protocols. Why add an unneeded disk controller to the mix?
  4. Your own ASIC. Intel and TSMC announced earlier that the Atom core would be available to select customers as an ASIC/SOC core. Perhaps you don’t have the production volumes needed to qualify as a select customer for that program but you’d still like to avail yourself of Intel’s processor architecture because of the immense pool of existing software, the many available operating systems for the x86 architecture, and the broad development tool support. Tunnel Creek gives you a way of doing so using a standard processor-based SOC that will likely be produced in fairly high volumes. For lower production volumes, a 2-chip embedded design may well be the most economical.
If these possibilities excite your inner design muse, then start bothering Intel to see when you can get your hands on some Tunnel Creek samples.

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