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Putting VIA Technologies on the embedded map
 
 

VIA Technologies Inc. is perhaps not the first company that comes to mind when discussing processor platforms and hardware in embedded computers for industrial applications. PC motherboards in the Mini-ITX form factor with powerful audio and video performance is perhaps more often associated with VIA Technologies. 

 
 As a matter of fact VIA Technologies has been targeting the embedded market since way back. Ten years ago a group of small companies expressed an interest in a new low power processor from VIA. That was the starting point of the VIA Embedded Platform Division now employing some 170 people.
 
”It was back in 2001 when we developed the Eden processor,” says Epan Wu, Head of the VIA Embedded Platform Division. “We experienced all this interest from small companies not clearly categorized as embedded but it was certainly not PC companies. They were interested because of properties like fanless, low power and low noise for instance. That was pretty much when we started the embedded business from a component standpoint.”
 
VIA created the Mini-ITX form factor in 2001 to be able to offer compact motherboards based on the VIA Eden processor. The demands from the group of small companies back then had a lot in common with those from embedded customers of today. Epan Wu tells the story behind the business she is managing today.
 
VIA Technologies was founded in Silicon Valley, USA in 1987. The focus was development of core logic chipsets. The headquarters were moved to Taiwan in 1992. VIA purchased the Cyrix and Centaur processor divisions from National Semiconductor and IDT respectively and thereby entered the X86 processor market in 1999 with a complete processor platform offer. Since Intel and AMD were already established on the market a clear strategy to position VIA was needed.
 
”We were thinking that we have to do something that’s different and decided to focus on making the CPU really low power,” she says.
 

Inventing the Mini-ITX form factor

The VIA Eden processor was developed accordingly. The footprint of motherboards in existing form factors wasn’t small enough. The low-power VIA Eden processor on a large Micro-ATX motherboard (305 mm x 244 mm) just didn’t make sense.

”Nobody was trying to reduce size so we created our own compact form factor called Mini-ITX (170 mm x 170 mm).”

 
The VIA EPIA-M900 Mini-ITX board pairs the 1.6GHz VIA Nano X2 E-Series dual core processor with the VIA VX900H media system processor to provide a high-performance, scalable solution for a wide array of advanced digital signage, POS, Kiosk, ATM, home automation, healthcare and media client systems.
EPIA-M900 product page »
 

The strategy is similar today. The focus is mainly low-power processor platforms and compact sized boards and systems. The requirements from the products developed by the small companies that took an interest in VIA Eden ten years ago is pretty much the same as the ones expressed by the embedded customers of today.

VIA Technologies meets these requirements by offering components, modules, boards and systems. In-house resources and knowledge in research, hardware and software development completes the offer to large ODM customers. The product lifetime for the embedded products is seven years from the release of the product.

”For components it’s definitely seven years. Actually earlier this year we were in the process of end of life for a product that has been selling for more than ten years,” says Epan Wu.

 

Controlling components and IP

The control over the hardware and the components in the design is above the ordinary. VIA Technology is in fact a group of companies developing components with the functionality required to complete an embedded motherboard. The knowledge required adapting drivers and BIOS is there as well.

“If you look at a motherboard and take out the memory and the BIOS, every other chip VIA either has the IP for or owns the component.”

VIA’s CPUs are pin-to-pin compatible which gives possibilities for prolonging the product life time of motherboards by increasing the performance and to develop product versions in separate performance segments. One motherboard design is simply equipped with separate processors, let’s say the VIA Nano and the VIA C7 processors, to be used in product versions for instance in segments like low-end, high-end and mid-range. Adaptations in BIOS are the only thing needed to make it work. A couple of dual- and quad-core processors have been released during 2011 and will increase the possibilities based on pin-to-pin compatibility.

 

The VIA EPIA-P900 Pico-ITX is based on a VIA Eden X2 dual core processor and the VIA VX900H Media System Processor on a platform about the size of a business card. The board delivers smooth playback of demanding video formats at resolutions of up to 1080p.

EPIA-P900 product page »

 

Mini-ITX motherboards are still a substantial revenue contributor but system business is growing steadily. Computer boards in the Pico-ITX form factor (100 mm x 72 mm) have been accepted in the embedded segment, like Mini-ITX motherboards. The use of VIA Mini-ITX motherboards have shifted though towards personal computers. The release of COM modules is one of the strategies to focus even more on the embedded customer group, for instance by introducing flexibility. The COM module form factors are for example COM Express.

”We are moving forward against bigger accounts and differentiated market segments, and we realized that we have to be a bit more flexible,” says Epan Wu. “In a complete motherboard the I/O, connectors and size are fixed and decided for instance by the form factor. The modular approach with COM modules has advantages in this sense.”

 

Targeting the low and ultra-low power segment

The VIA product offer includes components, COM modules, motherboards and systems which is a different product strategy than the ones used by for instance Intel and AMD, who don’t develop their own boards and systems. According to Epan Wu, the goal isn’t to compete with the most powerful X86 processor platforms on the market. The competitive strategy is to offer powerful platforms in the low and ultra-low power segment of the market.

She means that VIA’s knowledge in power gating plays a crucial role in the increasing competition for design-ins in low power applications. In short, Power gating is the power saving technology involving shutdown of parts in the CPU when they aren’t needed by the application.

 

The VIA COME-8X90 is a fanless COM Express form factor module based on the VIA 64-bit Nano E /X2 processors. It’s a type 6 Pinout and basic form factor (95mm x 125mm) COM Express module. COME-8X90 will be released in Q1, 2012.

VIA COME-8X90 product page »

 

VIA processor platforms use out-of-order execution (OOE) as the fundamental paradigm for how the CPU executes instructions. It means that instructions are executed in an order governed by the availability of data rather than the order in which instructions appear, which is the case for in-order-execution (IOE). The advantage using OOE is that the idle time in the CPU is shorter than for IOE. The comparison of processor platforms from manufacturers using different paradigms is a bit tricky. According to Epan Wu, a 1.3 GHz processor of the OOE type can defeat one 1.8 GHz competitor of the IOE type.

”That’s one reason why we say we want to partner with people that really understand embedded computing. It takes some explaining to understand our way of doing things,” says Epan Wu

 

Future embedded computing

Hectronic is qualified for the challenge and is a channel to the market for VIA products and technology. COTS COM modules, motherboards and systems are sold to Hectronic’s customers in the Nordic Countries, as is, or along with an extensive offer of services including carrier board development, adapted BIOS, heat dissipation solutions and mechanics. VIA processor platforms are also options to consider for Hectronic’s customers that prefer a turn-key solution or a custom made carrier board.    

At the end of our conversation Epan Wu looks towards the future. A word recently invented among VIA engineers and market professionals may well be the way to describe what’s coming.

 ”It’s about displays everywhere or screenification. We have just made up that word and are putting a lot of emphasize on 2D, 3D graphics and video capability in the chipset.”

 

Epan Wu also believes in a future of more and more products that are increasingly smart, boosted with computing performance, at even lower power consumption and based on multi-core processors. VIA Technologies will meet the future challenges with more of what’s today’s competitive edge such as complete control over the hardware, its components and software drivers and BIOS. According to Epan Wu the organization of VIA Technologies are expected to be divided into separate departments targeted towards and specialized in vertical segments like for instance automotive, digital signage and medical.

 

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