Archive for January, 2016

January 21st, 2016 ~ by admin

Microchip PIC’s up Atmel

Microchip PIC16C62 ENG SAMPLE - 1989

Microchip PIC16C62 ENG SAMPLE – 1989

Yesterday Microchip, makers of the PIC line of microcontrollers, announced they were buying Atmel, for a cool $3.56 Billion.  This isn’t entirely surprising considering the ongoing consolidation in the industry, It was only last year that Dialog attempted to purchase Atmel, and before that ON Semiconductor and Microchip. In December of 2015 NXP and Freescale (formerly Motorola Semiconductors) merged, creating one of the largest microelectronics companies.  These mergers do create an interesting result, product mixes that were formerly competitors, end up being marketed side by side.  In the case of NXP and Freescale, NXP marketed many MCS-51 microcontrollers in their 8/16-bit lines, while Freescale of course sold many versions of MC6800 based MCU’s.  These two rivalries have existed since the early 1980’s and likely will continue.  Perhaps the biggest rivalry in MCU though is between Atmel and Microchip.

Atmel EPROM, fab'd by GI in 1986, right before they became Microchip

Atmel EPROM, fab’d by GI in 1986, right before they became Microchip

Microchip was spun off of General Instrument in 1987, but the PIC architecture dates back to 1976, and is still being made in nearly the same form (PIC16C55).  Atmel was started in 1984, first making EPROMs, and then MCS-51 microcontrollers, one of the very first companies to make an 8051 with on die flash memory.  In a bit of a twist of fate, when Atmel started, it was a fabless company, it contracted with several companies to make its EPROMs, including Sanyo, and General Instruments, which as mentioned above, became Microchip.  Atmel also makes APRC processors, and for a time made Motorola products as well (Atmel has a very convoluted history, for more info on this read here and here )

Today the PIC line continues to be popular, with devices for the low end, such as the PIC10/12 all the way to the MIPS based PIC24 on the upper end.  Atmel continues to make 8051 MCUs, but also makes the 8 and 32-bit AVR line, perhaps best known today for its use in Arduino boards.  They also make MCU’s based on the ARM core, a competitor to MIPS, and Atmel’s own AVR32.

Likely to the consternation to many fans of either company, this merger does make sense, more so than ON or Dialog buying Atmel.  While Microchip and Atmel both compete in the same markets, they do so with different architectures.  Product lines are unlikely to change, and overhead saving should free up $$ both for stockholders (yawn) and engineering teams alike. No word has been giving yet on wether Microchip intends to keep the Atmel branding, but perhaps they should, as an AVR MCU with a Microchip logo on it may just prove to be too much for some.

January 15th, 2016 ~ by admin

The Oracle SPARC M4 and how it became the M5 (but really didn’t)

Oracle SPARC M4 Wafer # 1 - No date, likely early 2011.

Oracle SPARC M4 Wafer # 1 – No date, likely early 2011.

The story of the Oracle SPARC M4 is best told starting with Afara websystems.  Afara was the original developer of the SPARC processor that became the SUn UtraSPARC T1, aka the Niagara.  Sun acquired Afara in 2002 in a sale that was really designed as a capital campaign for Afara, they had the technology and design for the processor, just not the money to enter the market, Sun had the money (or so they thought at the time).  The T1 was released in 2005 and had 4-8 cores.  The individual cores were called the SPARC S1 core (now an open source SPARC core).  In 2007 Sun released the Nigara 2, the UltraSPARC T2, with 4-8 cores, based on the second version of the S1, the S2.  Both the S1 and S2 were designed with multi-threading as the primary performance point.  They excelled at it, and the UltraSPARC T3, released in September 2010 (though it had been sampling all the way back in Dec. of 2009) did even better at multi-threaded applications.  The T3 also was fab’d by TSMC, a change from previous SPARCs which were almost entirely fab’d by Texas Instruments.

The T3, and the S2 core it was based on had one major problem. The S2 core had sub-par single thread performance.  While the workloads given to a SPARC server can be tailored somewhat to match was the processor does best (multi-threading) there is always going to be a point at which a single thread task must be done, and it will hold up the entire processor if it cannot be processed efficiently.

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January 6th, 2016 ~ by admin

Signetics SPC-16/10: Another Mini goes Micro

Philips P860 Minicomputer - 1971

Philips P860 Minicomputer – 1971

In the 1960’s the Dutch Philips Data Systems marketed computers from Honeywell.  By 1970 they decided that simply reselling others machines was not the best value for them, or their customers and set off to design their own series of mini computers.  The first design was the 8-bit P410, which only saw limited success, it was a bit too mini for the early 1970’s when 16-bits or better was the standard. 1970 saw Philips begin work on its successor in Fontenay Aux Roses, near Paris, France, a project known internally as Sagittaire.  It was released in 1971 as the P800 series of mini computers, starting with the P850.   These were a 16-bit design, using 16 16-bit registers.  It shipped with 2k x 16bits of memory and had a cycle time of 3.2 microseconds (~312KHz).  Further versions were released that supported up to 32k x 16bits of memory and faster cycle times.

Philips P851 Chipset

Philips P851 Chipset

The P800 architecture used the A0 register as the Program Counter and the last register (A15) as a stack pointer.  The design supported up to 64 I/O devices and 64 interrupt levels.  The addressing modes include direct, register, indirect, indexed and indexed indirect types and can operate on bits, bytes (characters), words, and double words.  Since the stack is maintained in memory, the stack pointer can be rewritten, preserving the current stack for easier context switches.  This is of course important as the P800 is designed as a multi-user. multi tasking computer.  The P800 instruction set included 97 instructions, including MULT/DIV, though depending on the model, some of these were simulated (microcoded).  The P800 family found wide use in offices and eventually banks (always the big money market) throughout Europe.  It also proved to be useful in industrial environments, a somewhat underappreciated market for mini-computers at the time.

IRAS - Infrared Astronomical Satellite - Launched 1983 - Based on P851 chipset

IRAS – Infrared Astronomical Satellite – Launched 1983 – Based on P851 chipset

In 1979 Philips released the P851, a Single Board Computer (SBC), version of the P800 series.  It included the full 32k words of memory and was an LSI implementation using 5 Philips LSI’s consisting of 4 4-bit ALUs and a control path.  The P851 was used extensively for industrial automation as well as Philip’s own PM4400 computer system.  This system became the basis of the PM4421 development system which supported development and emulation of many processors, including the Intel 8085/86/88, Zilog Z80, 650x, Motorola MC68k, Signetics 2650 and many others.

The P851 LSI design was also used in space missions, perhaps the most famous in the IRAS mission launched in 1983.  This was the first full Infrared mapping mission launched, and in its 10 month mission, mapped almost the entire sky in 4 different IR wavelengths, IRAS Space Discoveries that are even today not yet identified.  The mission was of course limited by the coolant carried to keep the IR detector cold, but the IRAS satellite continues to orbit Earth to this day, with a 16-bit P851 computer still on board.

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January 1st, 2016 ~ by admin

Siemens SAB80199: 16-bits for Europe

Siemens SAB80199 - Introduced 1983 @ 20MHz This example is made in 1985

Siemens SAB80199 – Introduced 1983 @ 20MHz This example is made in 1985

By 1982 Siemens has firmly established themselves as a semiconductor powerhouse in West Germany, and the entirely of western Europe.  Their manufacturing prowess led them to be Intel’s second source of choice in Europe, building 8008,8080, and 8086/8 processors, with production beginning for the 186 and 286s processors as well.  Siemens’ expertise was not just in making second sourcing others work, they had their own design/development as well, doing a large amount of work for the industrial automation market as well as others.

In late 1982 they announced a new 16-bit processor, one of their own design.  Production began in 1983 and continued for over a decade.  The 80199 had a 8086 compatible bus, but that’s where the similarities end.  The 80199 is often described as a ‘Terminal COntrol Processor’ or a ‘Printer Controller’ which is a bit deceptive.  It was designed  from the outset as a real time processor, capable of handling multiple real time tasks.

Siemens SAB80199 made in 1990, and still marked 'W. GERMANY'

Siemens SAB80199 made in 1990, and still marked ‘W. GERMANY’

The SAB80199 was built on a 3 micron NMOS process and contains 40,000 transistors on a 45mm2 die.  Clock speed is 20 MHz (faster then most anything else in 1983) and had an instruction cycle of 0.5 microseconds.  It moved many of the RTOS functions from software (or an external chip like Intel’s 80130 RTOS co-processor for the 808x) to on chip hardware.  It had 8 status registers, 8 instruction pointers, and 8 sets of registers.  This allowed very rapid task switching as each tasks data did not have to be saved/restored, a complete task switch took 1 microsecond to complete.  In addition the 80199 had another feature that was rather novel at the time, cache.  The processor contained an on chip instruction cache the could hold 16, 16-bit instructions.  For some sets of code, such as a simple loop, the entirely of the instructions for it, would reside on chip, resulting in very fast execution.  Today of course caches for data/instructions are normal, and very large, measured in KB and MB but in 1983 it was virtually unknown.

In 1983 the ‘West Europe Report’ called Siemens 80199 the ‘Fast Bavarian’, fast indeed, and it was adopted across Europe, but never made it to the American market in any quantity.  It is perhaps one of the ‘forgottens’ but certainly deserves a place in the history of real time computing.