Adoption of Multi Core processors for industrial applications – Opportunities and Challenges

While the semiconductor industry has not been able to keep pace with the Moore’s law since 2006, the increase in chip frequencies has brought in new challenges in terms of power consumption. This has led to the evolution of Multi core processor technology (MCPs), which has already made a significant mark in the desktop computer market with all major semiconductor companies producing processors with 2, 4 and even up to 16 processing cores.

Multi-core processor technology has opened up new avenues in other areas as well and one domain area that has started adopting the technology significantly is the Industrial Automation and Robotics area. With a parallel evolution on the Operating System and Application software side for industrial applications, various control devices like PLCs, Micro-controllers and Human Interface Devices can be combined to run on single board platform based solution, which was something difficult to do with single core architectures. With varied software configurations that are possible, MCP architecture can give users a great deal of choice and flexibility like e.g. one of the cores can be dedicated to a complex process or critical functionality like a safety module or a redundancy module while the other core is available for non-critical operations.

Though in theory multiple cores would enhance the overall computing performance of the platform, realizing the potential of multi-core processing poses a significant challenge to software designers. In order to realize the benefits of MCPs the programmers must strive for absolute parallelism and at the same time not compromising on the real time determinism of the applications.

There are two software configurations that are possible with MCPs, Symmetric Multi Processing and Asymmetric Multi Processing. With a single operating system managing all the cores and scheduling the tasks between cores, SMP can assure users absolute parallelism provided the application is split into multiple threads. This objective brings to the fore the issue of redesign all existing applications to use thread affinity and multi threading constructs. The programmers have to be trained towards this perspective of concentrating on parallelism, which they are not used to in single core architectures. Also, while SMP architecture provides enhanced performance if the parallelism is exploited adequately, it may have a potential to adversely impact the Real Time Determinism, which can be crucial in Real Time Systems.

In Asymmetric Multi Processing platforms, multiple operating systems run simultaneously in the system, one for each core. The hardware peripherals are distributed between Operating systems. Since each OS manages only one core there is hardly any need to redesign applications allowing ease in portability from single core to multi-core platforms. AMP also ensures real time determinism being design equivalent to a single core architecture having only one core to schedule tasks. However, AMP does have limitations in terms of the parallelism that it can exploit on a multi-core setup. This is inherently due to the fact that the Operation system running on one core may not know if other cores are idle and cannot schedule tasks for other cores.

With each configuration having its benefits and limitations, choice of the configurations entirely depends on the nature of the application. With MCPs having more than two cores a hybrid configuration is also possible where both SMP and AMP co-exist, like in a quad core a single core can be configured to AMP to run critical task and ensure Real time determinism and other three cores are configured to run in the SMP mode.

The automation industry is slowly adapting MCPs with higher-end controllers first, followed by lower end controllers as costs come down. In the lines of software evolution there is also need for evolution of associated tools like compilers and debuggers to enable best use of MCP platforms. While there are debuggers that can debug and visualize the multi threading in true sense with interaction between threads and compilers that can map application code to specific core, reducing the efforts of the programmers, there is still a lot more to do as far as leveraging MCPs for critical industrial automation platforms.

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