The Internet of Things has huge potential, but all that power needs to be processed. Here’s how processors are evolving to meet the future.
Roll over smart phones, there’s a new player in town. The Internet of Things (IoT) is here – or at least it’s on its way and it promises to reshape the way we live and do business. Billions of connected devices around the world will be talking to one another and sharing information, but while we talk about the possibilities, it’s easy to forget about the processors underpinning this technology.
Ever since the first circuit boards appeared the sector has lived by this mantra: ‘smaller, denser and faster’. Processors have shrunk in size and delivered faster processing times and ever-increasing data management capacities.
The age of things
IoT’s rise, then, creates new challenges and possibilities. For those that don’t know, the IoT revolves around the concept of connecting multiple physical devices to deliver information into a central processing unit.
For example, a car might have sensors in the engine monitoring fuel levels; an aircraft could be covered with sensors detecting damage and predicting faults before they become life threatening. The possibilities are endless.
Just how endless depends on who you talk to. We’re at such an early stage with the technology that there’s no telling just how big its impact will be. PwC believes the IoT market will grow to more than $9 trillion by 2020 with more than 30 billion connected devices. Gartner, meanwhile thinks there will be 20bn devices.
The one thing that needs to be addressed is the processing power lying beneath the skin.
Part of the problem is that there is no one-size fits all solution. PCs and then smartphones were able to deploy roughly the same chip designs across all sorts of applications. However, that’s not necessarily the case in the world of IoT. Different devices will need to perform different duties – they will have to handle varying amounts of data and cope with all sorts of different environmental conditions.
When the going gets tough
Some will be placed underwater, such as sensors in the offshore oil and gas industry delivering information about the state of pipes deep below the surface. They will have to deal with salt water and high pressure.
Sensors in a car engine monitoring fuel levels would have to withstand high heat and heavy impact damage.
Each unit, then, will need a different approach given the specific situations in which it will be used.
Early IoT devices made use of the semi-conductor technology already being used in smartphones, but as the sector has evolved a new generation of specifically manufactured models is emerging.
They fall into several distinct categories.
- Smart sensors: Connected micro-controllers that integrate various analogue interfaces. CPU performance is between 50 and 100DMIPS.
- Connected audio: Includes everything from Bluetooth based speakers to high-end home cinema systems. It can be anywhere from a high performance MCU delivering 300 to 500 DMIPS to application processors offering anything up to 1,000 DMIPS.
- Connected video: Connected or IP based cameras for streaming recording video. IP Cameras have basic UI and don’t require high end GPUs capable of rendering 3D graphics.
High performance multimedia-rich devices need processors capable of dealing with high demand and extremely complex workloads including powerful 3D graphics.
The exact requirements depend on the application and will involve balancing performance versus power consumption and cost. In some home-based locations such as smart TVs the emphasis is on size and operational cost as opposed to performance.
High density computer nodes – perfect for those situations which need to deliver ultra-high-performance capabilities. They will be involved with complex algorithms such as compression and data filtering.
These are early days, but the potential for growth is enormous. Connecting the physical, as well as the virtual world, has huge potential, especially in financial services, but key to this will be the processing power that lies beneath the skin.