Military Embedded Systems

Crunch all you want, we'll make more CPUs


September 25, 2008

Don Dingee

Contributing Editor

Military Embedded Systems

Crunch all you want, we'll make more CPUs

If the Apple purchase and integration of P.A. Semi goes as expected, the PWRficient has joined a long list of dead CPU technology inside a defense program somewhere near you: CDP1802, MIL-STD-1750A, Z8000, Am29000, and i80960. And Freescale is dead set on the dual-core 8641D being the last of the high-end e600 Power Architecture designs, with its focus instead on designs like the QorIQ P4080 using eight smaller e500mc cores.

These are just more signs that the shift to consumer electronics has transformed the landscape for defense computing permanently. Getting any high-end CPU in a version with a higher junction temperature is difficult, and forget about getting a state-of-the-art CPU in a rad hard version. Building parts to meet defense requirements just isn't a money-making proposition for most companies.

When I wrote about this last year, I pointed out the solution might be, in part, boutique processors such as the Raytheon MONARCH. But at least one of the supporters of that architecture - Mercury Computer Systems - ended up not going that direction for production designs. "We can only support so many processor architectures", said my source. (The MONARCH uses an R3000-like instruction set, where most Mercury efforts center on Power Architecture devices.)

However, I don't think that means the concept of a reconfigurable processor in defense circles is dead. In fact, it appears that the opposite might be true - the idea might be very alive, out of necessity.

In 1990, while I was working on an IRAD project at a major defense contractor, the engineers across the hall were working on another interesting job. They were emulating the CDP1802 instruction set with Altera MAX FPGAs, a fairly straightforward job for a simple architecture using only single-issue, in-order execution.

Processors have gotten much more complex, but with FPGA cores readily available for many processor architectures, "building" your own processor device is now feasible without all the work of emulating instruction sets. These devices won't have high-end CPU cores, but they will have enough horsepower to get the job done for most applications - and much more horsepower than things like the 1750A.

Using FPGAs delivers more benefits. With the other functionality in the FPGA, other features can be directly integrated with the processor core to innovate, save space, and improve performance. FPGAs are available in extended temperature ranges, with extended life cycles, and there are some rad hard FPGA lines available.

Two examples of companies on this not-so-beaten path include:

  • CPU Tech (, Pleasanton, CA) has introduced their Acalis CPU872 SoC, which they call a field programmable multicore device. Fabbed at IBM's Trusted Foundry, the part includes Power Architecture 440 cores, embedded DRAM, and several utility compute engines. The device also has anti-tampering and anti-reverse engineering features (really their focus), and is offered in an industrial temp range with a 10-year lifespan to select customers.
  • Achronix Semiconductor (, San Jose, CA) is working with BAE Systems on a rad hard FPGA using its high-performance FPGA technology. Achronix claims to have one line of current non-rad hard parts operating at near 2 GHz, and another line running near 1 GHz with a super wide -260 ¬∫C to +130 ¬∫C temperature range.

Ray Alderman of VITA is even on this bandwagon, calling on the audience at the 2008 Critical Embedded Systems MediaFest to "innovate outside traditional semiconductor offerings" using FPGAs in order to protect designs from CPU and other component obsolescence. Not the greatest marketing term for an initiative, but the idea is solid.

We might never see a return to the days when high-end processor vendors targeted defense markets, but as long as the FPGA players and CPU core IP providers stay in the game, there should be options. And we might see some very creative solutions rise from the ranks.

For more information, contact Don at [email protected].