How Many Quarks Does It Take To Make An IoT?

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Intel wants to build the Internet of Things (IoT) using the x86 architecture, but that would have been a challenge using the Intel Atom. After starting out small, the Atom has grown to a full-fledged, 64-bit platform with virtualization support and multiple cores. It is still a low-power device compared to the Core or Xeon lines, but multicore Arm platforms have it beat on power utilization.

The 32-bit, Pentium-class X1000 Quark system-on-chip (SoC) is Intel’s new solution (Fig. 1). The single-threaded core runs at 400 MHz and is designed for low-power applications well below what an Atom could be used for. The chip has a 16-kbyte L1 cache and a whopping 512 kbytes of SRAM, so the DDR3 memory support may not be required for many applications.

 

Quark Specs

The Quark’s peripheral set is typical of this class of high-end microcontrollers. It includes 10/100-Mbit/s RMII Ethernet, x1 PCI Express Gen 2, SD/MMC, USB 2.0, SPI, UART, I2C, GPIO, and a real-time clock.

The Quark is still a compute and communications platform, so any analog support would be off-chip. The PCI Express Gen 2 opens up a number of possibilities such as display or graphics support. Overall, the Quark is a good starting point for a family of SoCs.

The Quark die is one-fifth the size of an Atom, but limitations come with the smaller size. The chip has the x86 virtual memory management support. System virtualization is not part of the package, but that is not as necessary in embedded applications targeted by the chip.

This approach seems reasonable since it also requires one-tenth the wattage of an Atom. The platform, then, definitely can target mobile and wearable products. Of course, the Quark will have lots of competition from other SoCs including those based on Arm and MIPS cores.

The Quark was announced at IDF 2013, but it was presented as a synthesizable SoC platform that Intel customers could add their intellectual property (IP) even though it would have to be built in Intel fabs (see “IDF 2013 And Windows 8 Revisited” at electronicdesign.com). The X1000 is essentially the base for this design.

An x86 Arduino

The Quark is currently available on the Arduino Galileo board, which is designed for developers and students (Fig. 2). It is compatible with Arduino shields. The Arduino software tools, including Sketch, will be designed to work with the platform, but these are only starting points for students.

 

The board also exposes the USB, Ethernet, and PCI Express, which is via a half-card, mini-PCIe socket. The system boots from 8-Mbyte SPI flash. And, it boasts 256 Mbytes of DDR3 DRAM plus 11 kbytes of EEPROM.

The Galileo will have to compete with many of the 32-bit Arduino-compatible alternatives such as those based on Arm Cortex microcontrollers and Microchip’s 32-bit MIPS platform. Many can run Linux or other operating systems. The Galileo runs Linux.

At this point, the Internet of Things comprises multilevel gateways. The Quark is Intel’s lowest layer. We will have to see if the bar is low enough.

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William Wong

Bill Wong covers Digital, Embedded, Systems and Software topics at Electronic Design. He writes a number of columns, including Lab Bench and alt.embedded, plus Bill's Workbench hands-on column....
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