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Heterogeneous Processing Shakes-up the Embedded Processor Landscape

The competitive landscape of the embedded processor market has shifted again. Facing the encroachment of giant Intel, an alliance has formed to counter-balance the vast Intel ecosystem. On June 12th, AMD, ARM, Imagination Technologies, TI, and Mediatek announced the formation of the Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation in order to develop a unified, open industry standard architecture for heterogeneous computing. This sets the stage for a number of interesting developments.

This union is intriguing on a number of levels. AMD has traditionally been x86 based, but this suggests a stronger leaning towards ARM. It also represents two IP companies, ARM and Imagination, really coming together and finding common ground. From a technology perspective, it suggests a greater push towards the incorporation of GPUs alongside CPUs, with AMD having its various GPU solutions and ARM with its Mali graphics processor. In terms of TI, it’s recognition on their part that, “Hey, my DSPs are great, but they aren’t the whole story! I need these other chip types and low power ARM IP too!” The suggestion is clear that the days of discrete CPUs, GPUs, and DSPs are coming to an end, and the System-on-Chip (SoC) has fully arrived.

Beyond the processor story are the greater ecosystem implications. The foundation prepares the way for more open source tools and software to support the goal of a next generation heterogeneous devices. By standardizing the hardware architecture, it will allow increased software innovation across multiple device classes. The non-profit consortium will make a range of developer tools, software developer kits, libraries, and other support available.

Who is left out? A number of processor companies remain absent from the party, including NVIDIA and Freescale. In the embedded space, NVIDIA is still a smaller player, unless you include console gaming in embedded. But Freescale is certainly quite active across the automotive, industrial, and communications market. As Freescale undergoes leadership change, the company is probably content to sit this one out for the time being until putting its own house in order. But, it likely represents a compelling opportunity for a number of competitors that are feeling the heat from Intel’s approach.

Overall, VDC sees this as a very interesting movement in the embedded market and a collaborative effort that could lead to more interesting processor combinations and intensify the competition for market share in the embedded world. 

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