Extreme Processing: Parallels with an oil leak

Friday, June 4th, 2010 by Robert Cravotta

I took some time today to watch a live video feed of the attempts to cap the BP oil leak. While I was watching the “action”, I realized that this operation demonstrates many extreme concepts that might provide lessons for embedded developers as they continue to push the envelope of what is possible.

The first thing I noticed was the utter lack of light – other than the light from the artificial sources mounted on the ROVs (remotely operated vehicles). The second thing I noticed was the extreme turbulence of the environment – the turbulence is a testament to the magnitude of the raw power of nature. The third thing I noticed was the surreal appearance of calmness, within all of that turbulence, immediately surrounding the structure that the ROVs were manipulating toward the source of the leak.

This operation is taking place 5000 feet below the surface of the ocean – far below the point where sunlight no longer penetrates into the ocean depths (approximately 1000M below the surface). The clarity and details in the video feed belie the challenges that engineers had to solve to provide that much usable light in such a hostile environment.

As processors continue to grow in complexity and on-chip resources, a designer’s ability to see everything that is going on within the processor also grows in complexity. Contemporary processors must be able to collect even more data in an ever-shrinking time window than previous generation devices. Embedded systems that are able to provide real-time data in a continuous stream belie the challenges that chip designers had to solve to provide that much visibility into the chip.

Despite the extreme turbulence around the leak site, the containment team is able to deliberately control and manipulate the equipment into position to attempt to stem the flow from the leak point. The capping structure (my technical term) appears to “gently float” within all of this turbulence in the video feed. I have no doubt that there is a significant amount of equipment and cabling necessary to anchor the equipment so it does not “fly” away. The movements of the ROVs are deliberate, and if you watch long enough, you can discern some “rules” that the ROV operators follow: only grab the white cable with the pinchers; manipulate the blue cables with the white cables or use the robot arm to coax the blue cables to where you need them to go.

Similarly, chip designers of contemporary processors must build their systems to remain resilient despite narrower thresholds for noise and errors. In other words, contemporary devices live in a world of hostile elements in the environment that exhibit an amplified relative magnitude compared to early generation devices. Despite the narrower thresholds, these devices must continue to provide a calm and predictable level of operation that an embedded developer can depend on.

The next post in this series will look at the possible lessons embedded developers might be able to extract from the logistics of this containment effort. If you would like to be an information source for this series or provide a guest post, please contact me at Embedded Insights.

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

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