Developer's Guide to Intel® Atom™ Processor (part 1 of 4)

By Nancy Nicolaison

A New Class of Internet Devices

With the introduction of the Intel® Atom™ processor, a new class of highly portable internet devices with significant processor performance is beginning to emerge. For developers, this introduction opens the door to a new realm of business and consumer application opportunities. Of course, the key question is: what kinds of applications are best suited to devices powered by Intel® Atom™ processors? Not only is there a broad portfolio of specialized application opportunities, but Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture software developers enjoy a large base of x86 code suitable for optimizing for the Intel® Atom™ processor. Before getting into this, though, let's see what the Intel® Atom™ processor is all about.

The Intel® Atom™ Processor

The Intel® Atom™ processor-the most recent evolutionary advance in the Intel® family of processors-is a fundamentally new tool for solution architects and application developers:

  • Technical implications. The processor's low power, low cost, and low thermal coefficient make a whole new class of devices possible.
  • Social implications. The affordability, performance, and versatility of devices powered by Intel® Atom™ processors can extend the connected mobile culture to vast new audiences.
  • Environmental implications. Both in terms of its own low power consumption and its manufacturing process, the Intel® Atom™ processor is the forerunner in a new genre of "green" information technologies. For these reasons, Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture provides enterprises and institutions mandated to improve their environmental stewardship performance a useful tool.

In terms of computing horsepower, devices based on Intel® Atom™ processors realize roughly equivalent performance to Intel® Pentium® 4 processors, making them ideal platforms for content consumption (think mobile TV, music, movies, and live sports coverage). Clearly, in these sorts of bandwidth-hungry applications, devices based on Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture pair superbly with WiMAX, Intel's "4G" mobile broadband networking technology. Using Mobile Internet Devices (MIDs), Netbooks, and Scalable Communication Cores (SCCs) as content viewers, consumers will enjoy rich, mobile media experiences with very high qualities of service and unfettered mobility. Intel is actively working to encourage early integration of this powerful technology in Netbook and MID-class devices.

Designed from the ground up to be a power miser, Intel® Atom™ processor powered devices can achieve a battery life of up to eight hours operating offline and up to four hours of connected operation. To date, the Intel® Atom™ processor is most visibly incorporated in connected mobile devices, but it is even being used to create ultra-low-power home file-server systems. A single Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture powered file server operates at a mere 35 Watts-or about half the energy of an ordinary light bulb uses. By way of comparison, the Pentium 4 2.8 GHz uses 68.4 W typical thermal power and 85 W maximum thermal power. Because the devices generate very little heat, they also require less energy for cooling than typical "full power" equipment.

Perhaps the most under-reported achievement of the Intel® Atom™ processor is the one for which it most deserves attention: This is the first Intel® processor to claim a completely lead and halogen-free manufacturing process-an accomplishment that took six years of research and development to achieve. This green approach makes the Intel® Atom™ processor a key tool for technology-based institutions and enterprises tasked with improving their environmental stewardship performance.

Targeting Cloud Computing
In the cloud computing model, content and infrastructure are resident in the cloud, or network. Cloud content consumers need only a lightweight, thin client "viewer" device to participate. The animating principle is that if infrastructure cost is amortized over a sufficiently large population, then many more people can join the audience and benefit from cloud content and services, because participation becomes inexpensive. With their relatively low price points, devices based on Intel® Atom™ processors will play a crucial role in stimulating demand for cloud computing in the developing world, where the vast majority of consumers currently consider smart phones the closest thing to a computer they'll ever be able to own.

Intel® Atom™ processor powered devices will also contribute to expansion of cloud content consumer audiences due to their ability to leverage the x86 code base. Fundamental software solutions, long in existence on the x86 client computers, are evolving to target these emerging user communities.

Targeting Enterprise Business Process Mobilization
One of the big, near-term applications of Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture is enterprise use of MIDs as thin clients in mobile business process support solutions. Using Netbooks, MIDs, or SCCs to cheaply mobilize user-facing components of distributed applications offers big benefits. The client device has far greater power, flexibility, and sophistication than similarly priced smart phones, and internet-based solutions can eliminate airtime charges associated with phone networks.

Another big advantage of MIDs and Netbooks as business process support tools is that they logically and functionally mesh with existing server-side administrative tools and policies. The most popular devices based on Intel® Atom™ processors run either the Windows* XP operating system or variants of Linux* such as Moblin*. All these operating systems enjoy mature, robust, fully integrated security models, making them targets of choice for mobilizing enterprise applications. In contrast to most smart phone and PDA-based enterprise solutions, Intel® Atom™ processor devices are relatively easy to administer, configure, secure, and provision.

From a software developer's point of view, there are two significant differences between devices based on Intel® Atom™ processors and other x86 form factors: display size and power efficiency issues. Both key considerations, no application can expect to be completely successful on MID-class devices without solid, well-designed strategies for each, since applications can have substantial impact on power efficiency, yet the platform architecture still allows extensive reuse of existing x86 business logic, some of the existing user interface design, and much of the existing security policy and implementation. Infrastructure reusability translates to reduced testing costs and rapid deployment for applications mobilized on the Intel® Atom™ processor. These factors combine to make MID/Netbook applications built on Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture the safest, most predictable, and most fiscally conservative path for mobilizing traditional client-server applications.

A Solution Architects' Guide to Best-Fit Applications of Intel® Atom™ Microarchitecture

The Intel® Atom™ processor's confluence of lows-low price, low power, low barriers to x86 developers-makes many new genres of mobilized applications possible in the near term. From a solution architect's point of view, analyzing the strategic value of Intel® Atom™ processor based devices comes down to identifying their strengths and matching them to potential areas of application, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1. Top Best-Fit Intel® Atom™ Microarchitecture Applications Profiled by Application Requirements



Top Best-Fit Intel® Atom™ Microarchitecture Niche Applications and x86 Porting Candidates

These candidates fall into several categories: mobile gaming, robotics, smart devices, mobile television, learning, journalism, and more.

Mobile Gaming
Part social networking, part location-based services, and part traditional role playing games, MIDs are ideally suited to connected multi-player games. Smart phone-based platforms for this niche have stalled because of several complicating factors:

  • Individual games must be published or at least sanctioned by carriers.
  • Diversity of handset hardware makes it difficult to integrate players and provide a consistent experience.
  • Phones are less tolerant of interrupted connections than traditional computers.
  • Device performance is often inadequate to provide a good game experience

Using x86 heritage mobile devices offers gamers more, in terms of the intelligence and capability of their devices, interrupt-ability of play, cross-device compatibility, and offline operations. Arbitrating game play, point accumulation, and user standing in the game community from a Web-based game server vastly simplifies system designs and makes optimization of the user experience far less complex than for phone-based applications.

Robotics
Robotics are the acknowledged key to more productive manufacturing processes, better capable of producing limited numbers of highly customized products, of consistently good quality. Robotic automation has historically been extremely costly, with very long term cost-benefit payback and significant barriers to entry. However, the Intel® Atom™ processor could change this niche dramatically. With a battery life of up to eight hours for unconnected operation, devices with Intel® Atom™ processors could easily work a full shift powering mobile robotic devices for factory floor automation, dangerous or dirty jobs, or the sort of monitoring that is difficult for humans to perform repetitively. Existing codebase, well understood programming model and a rich catalog of developer tools and frameworks make targeting the Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture a low risk path for robotic application development.

Smart Device Integration
Homes, offices and automobiles are currently cluttered with growing populations of siloed electronics. As an example, take the most recent generation of automobiles. The list of new car options typically includes multiple electronic gadgets: Global Positioning System (GPS)-based navigation assistance, Apple iPod plug-ins, back seat video, satellite radio, and the like. Clearly, providing a half-dozen types of electronic gadgets and independent means for accessing them is inefficient, not to mention potentially distracting and unsafe. It also increases cost, complexity, and the likelihood of component failures. Using a single MID form factor device to provide a control panel for integration services is more robust, and offers easy integration of new services.

Mobile TV
In 2008, television was still far and away the dominant medium for U.S. entertainment. Overall, Americans spent 389 billion hours watching TV-in contrast to around 800 million hours on the Internet. Curiously, about one-third of the time spent on the internet was also spent watching TV. These statistics pretty much speak for themselves: Americans really like to watch TV, and if they can, they will. A high-quality mobile TV viewing experience is a no-brainer and a sure win.

Learning
A crop of rugged, low-power, small form-factor computers are popping up in the developing world-products of collaboration among Intel and its industry peers. Clearly, this trend is going to accelerate and will certainly be an important component of domestic education strategies, for both localized and distance learning usage models, over the next decade. High-quality content, curriculum, and tools for these little machines will be key to their adoption.

Backpack Journalism and Portable Video Recording
Intel® Atom™ processor based devices are built for long battery life, storage capacity, and connectivity to set up a new generation of amateur and ad hoc video journalists as real-time reporters (think live Webcasts of high school football games, speech and debate contests, or special topic seminars). Although the devices aren't well adapted to editing or manipulation of recorded video, they easily and cheaply provide the recording component of a distributed video production solution.

RFID Field Tools
Radio-frequency ID (RFID) tagging was a $29 billion dollar industry in 2008 and has experienced double-digit year-over-year growth for the past five years. Used for inventory control and chain-of-custody tracking, such tagging will play a significant role in health care, pharmaceutical management and delivery, and the transportation industry. One of the advantages of RFID tags over traditional barcodes is that a tag interrogator can both read and write a tag from a distance of tens of meters or more. To date, tag interrogators have been custom devices that require costly, vendor-specific integration with back-end inventory systems. Devices with Intel® Atom™ processors could provide the mobility and connectivity of handheld interrogators but also offer seamless compatibility with x86 back-end inventory and management systems, considerably lowering cost of ownership for these systems. This could be a significant advance for RFID in health care: A typical, full hospital RFID installation currently prices out at $10 million, with the majority of the cost incurred in system integration.

WiMAX-Based Content Viewers
It's no secret that Intel is the powerhouse behind the WiMAX standard and build-out of WiMAX service networks. With broad adoption of 4G broadband networks, Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture will be the platform of choice for rich content consuming experiences wherever WiMAX is available. Both in terms of quality of service and fault tolerance, this pairing will offer viewers a potential mobile content experience at least as good as that which they see on home televisions.

Eldercare and Independent Living
As the U.S. population ages, strains on elder-caregiver resources loom. Research has shown that most elders do best and are happiest if they can remain in their own homes as long as possible. It is also far and away the preference of this population to live independently. Simple, easily portable, always-on devices like MIDs could vastly improve the ability of caregivers to monitor and support larger numbers of in-home elders, ensure that key medications are taken on schedule, and frequently assess the status of fragile elders.

Public Safety
Web-based public safety information systems have significant advantages over radio communications and information exchange systems. Aside from lower cost and unattended operations, Internet Protocol (IP)-based services have no single point of failure, are easy to set up as ad hoc networks, and completely eliminate barriers between various agencies communication systems. In addition, they are easily integrated with location-based services.

Summary

Intel® Atom™ processor's low power consumption and compatibility with existing x86 code make Intel® Atom™ processor powered devices perfect platforms for a great variety of mobile applications. Because there is such an enormous body of x86 code in existence today, porting existing applications to the Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture is a sensible way to quickly build applications for Intel® Atom™ processor powered devices. The next article in this series will discuss best practices for porting x86 applications to the Intel® Atom™ microarchitecture.

Link to other parts of this series:

Part 2: Choosing Porting Candidates
Part 3: Choosing Optimization Candidates
Part 4: Hands-On Debugging Guide



About the Author

Nancy Nicolaisen is an author, researcher and veteran software developer specializing in mobile and embedded device technologies. Her feature articles, columns and analyses have been internationally circulated in publications including BYTE, PC Magazine, Windows Sources, Computer Shopper, Dr. Dobbs Journal of Software Engineering, Microsoft Systems Journal; She is author of three books: Making Windows Portable: Porting Win32 to Win CE (2002, John Wiley & Sons); The Practical Guide to Debugging 32 Bit Windows Applications (1996, McGraw Hill); and The Visual Guide to Visual C++ (1994, Ventana Press) available in five foreign language editions. In 2007 she served as technical advisor for the development of the Microsoft Professional Education course titled "Designing, Building and Managing Wireless Networks". Ms. Nicolaisen is currently active in exploring open source technologies and trends for mobile, embedded and wireless devices.

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