NEC Develops XBridge SoC for Stream Processing

NEC Electronics and NEC Central Research Laboratories have jointly developed the XBridge (pronounced “cross bridge”) system on a chip (SoC). The XBridge efficiently processes large volumes of image, audio, network packet, and other streaming data, a task which conventional central processing units (CPUs) have performed poorly. NEC Electronics has successfully created a XBridge evaluation board and development tools.

NEC XBridge SoC Optimized for Stream ProcessingThe XBridge harnesses programmable hardware technology to implement hardware information that can be changed after shipping, by replacing the information specifying the hardware architecture, without attaching the chip’s elements or wiring to fixed hardware. This SoC consists of an STP programmable hardware engine; 2-channel PCI Express; a DDR2 memory interface; and other components all on a single chip. The STP engine’s parallel computational processing enables processing of streaming data one to two orders of magnitude faster than a conventional high-performance CPU, without requiring the data to pass through the CPU, all while consuming at most just 2 Watts of power.

NEC Electronics believes that this new SoC can meet the demands for processing complex data streams by office printers, servers, industrial devices, video recording devices, and other devices using the industry standard PCI Express as their internal connection interface, and the company will continue developing this technology with the aim of launching a commercial product within one year.

In recent years, skyrocketing chip-development costs and the ever-shorter lifecycles of consumer-electronics products have begun to give traction to the concept of creating a diverse lineup of consumer-electronics products with a single LSI by using a flexible chip architecture with swappable functionality, rather than developing custom chips specialized for each individual product. Programmable hardware technology has gained a great deal of attention as a way of achieving this. While it is currently possible to make the functionality of CPU-based chips appear to change by overwriting their software, it is impractical because the performance of software processing is much worse than that of hardware processing. Programmable hardware technology breaks through the limitations of software processing, enabling functionality to be swapped while maintaining the high processing performance of hardware.

NEC Central Research Laboratories has been developing programmable-hardware technology continuously since 1999. NEC Electronics realized that the benefits of high performance and flexibility, derived from programmable-hardware, would highly contribute to high speed stream processing, such as large volumes of image, audio, network-packet, and other data streams in accordance with the needs of the device. The company thus has been optimizing the technology as Stream transpose (STP) technology, based on NEC Central Research Laboratories’ technology.

STP technology consists of an STP engine, which is the hardware core for the chips, and STP tools, which are software to use the STP engine effectively. The STP engine is a programmable-hardware core, composed of a large number of arithmetic/logic units and memory units, that operates relatively low frequency, while provides high performance, because of its parallel operation nature.

The arithmetic/logic units and memory are arranged into a two-dimensional matrix in order to enable parallel processing. The architecture also enables fast background processing of data I/O (which is often a bottleneck with stream processing). The STP tools provide compilation and debugging functionality to synthesize hardware information to be implemented into the STP engine, from software written in the C language, and the tools has the capability to break complicated algorithm and/or memory access into maximized parallel processing manner. The tools are provided in a GUI-based integrated development environment that is familiar to software designers. The tools are based on the C-based hardware-design technologies researched and developed by NEC Central Research Laboratories over many years. NEC Central Research Laboratories and NEC Electronics have jointly developed an IDE that enables software designers to fully harness programmable-hardware technology.

Sony Corporation found that the company’s STP technology would enable to support the wide range of video and audio processing required of its professional-grade video cameras on a single chip, and has developed an SoC with an embedded STP engine. This chip was used in the PMW-EX1 professional camcorder, which went on sale in November 2007, and the PMW-EX3 and PMW-EX30 professional camcorders, which went on sale in July 2008. This SoC is the heart of the system for processing video and audio signals, interface processing with the recording medium, and other tasks. On the PMW-EX1, the STP engine performs such tasks as multiplexing and demultiplexing video and audio stream signals, and compressing audio signals. On the PMW-EX3 and PMW-EX30, it performs compressing video signals and other tasks in addition to the tasks previously implemented. This chip was developed by fusing the systems expertise of Sony with the STP technology of NEC Electronics. This chip has earned high praise as a flexible product enabling a wide range of customer products to be applicable in a single SoC.

NEC Electronics continued development based on these background of successful adoption. It has now developed XBridge, an SoC equipped with the STP engine, 2-channel PCI Express, and DDR2 interface on a single chip, as a flexible solution for fast execution of required processing using programmable hardware on a wide range of devices employing PCI Express. It has additionally developed a prototype evaluation board and development tools for the XBridge.

NEC Electronics will exhibit these developments at Embedded Technology 2008 (ET2008), to be held at Pacifico Yokohama from November 19th to 21st, 2008. The company is aiming to release a commercial XBridge product within one year, and is also developing a custom SoC with the STP engine as the IP core for the 40-nanometer generation and beyond. As chip-manufacturing technology scales continue to shrink, the company believes that programmable-hardware technology is a requirement for enabling functionality to be modified after product shipment, and with continue to develop technologies in this field.

About NEC Electronics
NEC Electronics Corporation (TSE: 6723) specializes in semiconductor products encompassing advanced technology solutions for the high-end computing and broadband networking markets; system solutions for the mobile handset, PC peripheral, automotive and digital consumer markets; and multi-market solutions for a wide range of customer applications. NEC Electronics Corporation has subsidiaries worldwide including NEC Electronics America, Inc. and NEC Electronics (Europe) GmbH.

XBridge and Stream Transpose are registered trademarks of NEC Electronics Corporation in Japan. NEC Electronics is either a registered trademark or trademark of NEC Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.