Extreme Processing Thresholds

Friday, March 19th, 2010 by Robert Cravotta

[Editor's Note: This was originally posted on the Embedded Master

Just in the past few weeks there have been two value-line processor announcements that push the lower limit for pricing. STMicroelectronics’ 32-bit Cortex-M3 value line processors are available starting at $0.85, and Texas Instruments’ 16-bit MSP430 are available starting at $0.25. These announcements follow the earlier announcement that NXP’s 32-bit Cortex-M0 processors are available for as low as $0.65.

These value pricing milestones map out the current extreme thresholds for pricing for a given level of processing performance. These types of announcements are exciting because every time different size processors reach new pricing milestones, they enable new types of applications and designs to incorporate new or more powerful processors into their implementation for more sophisticated capabilities. An analogous claim can be made when new processor power and energy consumption thresholds are pushed.

There are many such thresholds that make it both feasible and not feasible to include some level of processing performance into a given design. Sometimes the market is slower than desired in pushing a key threshold. Consider for example the Wal-Mart mandate to apply RFID labels to shipments. The mandate began in January of 2005 and progress to fully adopt the mandate has been slow.

In this new series, I plan to explore extreme processing thresholds such as pricing and power efficiency. What are the business, technical, hardware, and software constraints that drive where these thresholds currently are and what kinds of innovations or changes does it take for semiconductor companies to push those thresholds a little bit further?

I am planning to start this series by exploring the low-end or value pricing thresholds followed by low energy device thresholds. However, there are many other extreme thresholds that we can explore, such as the maximum amount of processing work that you can perform within a given time or power budget. This might be addressed through higher clock rates as well as parallel processing options including hardware accelerators for vertically targeted application spaces. Examples of other types of extreme thresholds could include interrupt service response latency; how much integrated memory is available; how much peripheral integration and CPU offloading is available; higher I/O sampling rates as well as accuracy and precision; wider operating temperature tolerances; and how much integrated connectivity options are available.

I need your help to identify which thresholds matter most to you. Which types of extreme processing thresholds do you want to see more movement on and why? Your responses here will help me to direct my research to better benefit your needs.

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