The launch of ARM-based embedded chips by a subsidiary of e-commerce giant Amazon has highlighted the growing trend back towards vertical integration: a year on from the first family of processors, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) offers a glimpse of how these devices are being used.
Amazon bought Annapurna Labs back in January 2015, and the Israel-based company has now launched the Alpine series of platform-on-chip and subsystems product line that enables original equipment manufacturers and service providers to deliver next-generation digital services for home gateways, WiFi routers and storage devices.
In January 2016, Annapurna launched 32bit and 64bit chips with the ARMv7 and 64-bit ARMv8 architectures and a rich set of peripherals for high performance for UHD video streaming, secure storage, application virtualization, and cloud applications, all of which are provides by Amazon Web Services (AWS) for its own e-commerce and video-on-demand services. Amazon is now offering the chips to other OEMs and service providers, although the chances of selling them to large data centre operators such as Facebook or Microsoft is small.
This highlights the trend back to having control of the silicon as a key element of a global business plan. For many years electronics companies such as Sony, Hitachi and Panasonic have been reducing the amount of semiconductor activity within their vertically integrated organisations on the basis that it allows the systems divisions to buy the best-in-class devices rather than the ones from the vertical organisations.
That changed with fabless chip design becoming mainstream, allowing equipment companies to buy teams of designers, which on the whole are cheaper than having to build a chip making plant. Apple buying PA Semiconductor (who were behind the original StrongArm high performance chips) to acquire the designers of its own ARM-based A-series chips was a very clear demonstration of this trend.
Software companies such as Facebook have moved into hardware with open source designs for data centre equipment, so expect more moves into the silicon side of the data centre, as Facebook has a vested interest in making sure that key components are not supplied by a key competitor.
Instead the Alpine chips will appeal to other embedded designers of Wi-Fi routers, NAS, and gateways for the connected home that enable them to support a wide range of devices and rapidly deliver innovative in-home services to consumers.
Today, in-home gateways and Wi-Fi routers are severely limited by the lack of network and compute resources, constraining what services can be offered on devices in the home and forcing consumers to acquire multiple devices for networking, storage, media management, backup, and internet connectivity. This is because the standard processor for an in-home networking or storage device has limited general-purpose compute capability and depends significantly on hardware acceleration and deep software optimizations to reach target performance. This architecture slows delivery of new services to consumers by requiring changes to hardware or months of software optimizations to accommodate new features.
Alpine helps to eliminate these challenges for service providers and OEMs by providing up to four cores of high performance general–purpose compute, advanced storage interfaces, PCIe Gen3, and multimode Ethernet connectivity of up to 10G to allow Alpine-based products to support many devices with services needed in the connected home including storage management, multimedia, IoT management, and cloud connectivity. With enterprise-class performance and features like DDR4 and 2MB of L2 cache, Alpine enables service providers and OEMs to rapidly roll out new consumer services, leverage open source or third-party applications, and meet performance demands without the need for hardware acceleration or custom software optimizations.
"In the fast-growing home application marketplace, new use cases and consumer needs are rapidly invented and adopted. To stay competitive, OEMs and service providers therefore need to quickly add support for the new features that give consumers the ability to enjoy the latest applications without changing hardware or waiting for months to get updated software," said Gary Szilagyi, Vice President of Annapurna Labs. "Our Alpine platform-on-chip and subsystems product line gives service providers and OEMs a high-performance platform on which they can design hardware that will support growing consumer demands for innovative services, fast connectivity, and many connected devices."
Annapurna maintains Alpine support in the Linux and FreeBSD open source projects. These standard open source operating systems allow third parties to easily run their applications and drivers on the Alpine platform and quickly qualify updated software on Alpine-based products. Multiple third party applications for the home segment run on the Alpine platform, including video streaming, security, and cloud connectivity. Drivers for components used in home devices have been ported and tested to run on Alpine including drivers for Wi-Fi chips, multimode Ethernet PHYs, and Ethernet switches.
The Alpine platform works with a variety of standard open source libraries and development models including Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK), OpenWRT, and open source hypervisor and container frameworks. Running DPDK on Alpine delivers 10G performance with low resource usage to enable high throughput on the network, while still running many services on the devices. Alpine platform’s support for common open-source hypervisor and container frameworks allows isolation of applications from critical networking and storage services enabling rapid application deployment and upgrades without impacting basic services.
Home gateway, Wi-Fi router, and NAS product designs based on Alpine are currently available from multiple original device manufacturers (ODMs) to give OEMs and service providers a choice of partners and to speed the development of new products and product refreshes. In addition, Annapurna offers a hardware development kit (HDK) for Alpine-based designs, which includes schematics files, layout files, thermal guidelines, and a bill of material (BoM). The HDK enables OEMs to leverage their own in-house resources, contract manufacturers, or other ODMs.
The Alpine platform is designed to bring enterprise-class reliability to the home by integrating thermal sensors, and parity/error correcting code (ECC) on internal buses, external buses, and memory. Further, Alpine provides power savings with configurable core power states, PCIe power states for on-chip components, and support for multiple wake up methods including Wake on LAN (WoL), wake on event, and wake on interrupt.
"There is significant growth in the home Wi-Fi segment with most of the demand occurring on high-performance routers. As a leading provider in this segment, we are committed to providing our customers with high performing solutions," said Tenlong Deng, Vice President of ASUS Networking & Wireless Devices Business Unit. "The increased demand for new applications and use models requires additional compute and more flexibility. We are collaborating with Annapurna on these technologies and believe that they have one of the most advanced and flexible silicon solutions in the marketplace."
"In the home network, consumers are asking for more services like media processing, HD video streaming, better security, and tighter integration of cloud services. Our router, gateway, and NAS product lines provide exceptional user experience and integrate many of the services needed by our customers," said Richard Jonker, General Manager & Vice President at NETGEAR. "Our recently announced ReadyNAS 214 is based on Annapurna's Alpine quad-core and packs in a rich set of services including PLEX media server with live transcoding capabilities, a private cloud for the home, 5 levels of security and a seamless backup solution for all connected devices. Using the Alpine quad core chip, we are able to run all of these services at very high performance. We like the Annapurna architecture and plan to collaborate with Annapurna on future projects."
"We offer rich functionality and applications in our NAS devices. With the powerful dual and quad-core Alpine processors product line, our customers can benefit from high-performance NAS products with cutting-edge solutions," said Meiji Chang, General Manager of QNAP Systems. "We have launched the dual-core 2-bay TS-231+ and 4-bay TS-431+, and the 5-bay quad-core TS-531P NAS products that support Docker and Linux container virtualization. Our NAS products also support PLEX media server for affordable optional multimedia applications. We are working closely with Annapurna Labs to further strengthen our product portfolio in 2016."
"We believe in building powerful, high-value storage solutions for homes and businesses that need to manage rapid data growth nowadays," said Jones Tsai, Hardware Design Director of Synology, an award winning NAS provider. "We have launched several products including the Synology DiskStation DS2015xs, DS1515, DS715, and DS416 using the Alpine chips. These enable our customers to enjoy features such as excellent encryption performance and built-in 10G support at a competitive price, making sure they are provided with a very effective approach to file management, sharing, and protection."