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Issues in shifting from single to multi-core

Posted: 19 Mar 2014     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:embedded development  user interface  Multi-threaded  multi-core  instrumentation 

You are a software/systems development lead on a complex embedded development project. There are many requirements to be met in order to satisfy the project specifications as well as an aggressive delivery timeline. The project is entering the integration phase. The functionality seems to be working well and you're feeling pretty good about things.

But then it happens: initial tests show that your system is performing at 1000% over the requirements! Or as you progress through the integration of the disparate components and begin to apply stress tests on your system, resets are occurring at a frequency that makes your system look like a re-boot test.

More functionality into faster, more powerful devices
With the exponential growth in the complexity of embedded systems, the above scenario is becoming all too common. Consider current mobile devices such as smart phones and tablets now hitting the market that have four processor cores (and an additional GPU core) such as Qualcomm's Snapdragon, with other suppliers such as Samsung advertising eight (heterogeneous) core devices for next-gen mobile devices.

Then there are higher-end devices such as the LSI Axxia Communication Processors (supporting 16 ARM Cortex A15 cores) for use in networking/telecom applications. It's safe to assume this trend for more functionality will not slow down any time soon.

Figure 1 shows an example of such a system and its possible components. This example could be a tablet, a mobile device, or even an automotive infotainment system. The demands from handheld to high-end devices are converging, and these systems are being asked to play flash videos, stream applications over Bluetooth, perform on-the-fly security tasks, be ready to take incoming calls, and more – while in many cases having the expectation that the user interface (UI) will not lose any responsiveness to touch gestures.

Figure 1: The inbound and outbound flow of data among devices continues to converge at alarming rates; system functionality needs to keep up with the increased demand for more and more data.

Multi-threaded, multi-core, and even multi-OS hardware/software embedded systems lead to extremely difficult-to-diagnose interdependent issues such as non-optimised use of shared resources, including the processors themselves! In some cases, problems may not arise until integration starts, and some of these may have the potential to kill a project.

But in this article we suggest another option. The solution is to propose a juxtaposition of process with technology. That is: leverage a new technical solution for solving these problems, and then merge this technical solution into the project software development processes in order to maximise the benefits.

Mitigating risk
Sound project management includes up-front risk mitigation plans. Thus, if you agree that what has been shared so far is an inherent risk in your upcoming projects, read on.

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