I was one of the early adopters of home theater PCs. Before the concept was widespread, I had assembled a PC with an HDTV card, a good sound card, a home theater amplifier and a plasma monitor. There were an incredible number of issues with the setup, but I was in it for the experimentation. The vagaries of sound card inputs and outputs compared to what home equipment wanted, conversion from VGA to component video (this was years before HDMI), and getting resolutions that the video card could produce and that the plasma would accept all cost dozens of hours of problem solving and led me to conclude that this technology was not ready for the average non-engineer consumer to embrace.
Beyond the basics, there were also numerous details that added to the challenge – how to remote control this ad-hoc collection of equipment along with applications on a PC, wireless keyboards and pointing devices with adequate range and reliability, mixing the cable company’s box with the HDTV DVR capabilities on the PC… At best, this system was not ready for prime time. At worst, it was a nightmare. At the time, my acid test was my teenage kids. When they couldn’t master its operation, I knew there was still more progress required.
One of the projects that went hand-in-hand with the hardware mix-and-match was the family media consolidation. I ripped hundreds of CDs, transferred thousands of family photos, (luckily, we don’t do home video or we’d have had a storage nightmare) and acquired extra disk space to handle the programs that we recorded from TV on our DVR card. Even with cheap disk space, it was a confusing and expensive proposition to get everything into one location where it could be accessed, backed up, and organized satisfactorily.
Over the five years or so since then, the system has gradually improved. Better set-top boxes came along that obviated the need for HDTV tuning and recording on the PC. Better remote control technology (and a lot of hours of custom programming) tamed the ease-of-use beast, and we ended up with something that fit into our home entertainment lifestyle – except for the media storage and distribution problem.
Apparently I was not alone in the problems I was encountering. To date, the market penetration of home theater PCs has been lethargic. PCs just don’t meet the ease-of-use requirements for most people’s entertainment center needs. However, with the explosion of home digital media that requires storage – digital photos, home video, music, and recorded TV programs, even the average digital-savvy consumer faces a daunting data storage problem.
Freescale announced this week that they’re coming to the rescue of people with a series of processors tailor-made for the storage market. The new Freescale PowerQUICC II family of processors is said to be optimized for storage applications. While the storage market has largely been focused on the enterprise and large Storage Area Networks (SAN) in the past, these new offerings are aimed at the small to medium business and consumer markets. In other words – a lot of people like me.
As you might guess, the company expects the emerging market for Network Attached Storage (NAS) and Digital Media Servers (DMS) in these areas to grow rapidly over the next few years. These networks use existing infrastructure like IP networks instead of requiring their own dedicated connectivity. For business use, they require far less IT support and infrastructure than enterprise-class SANs, and they are much less costly to deploy. On the consumer side, DMSs compete directly with PCs (which, as I discovered, are not well suited to household media server duty). Freescale claims that the cost of an embedded digital media server is well below the cost of a PC, and overhead is much lower because the DMS doesn’t have to function as a general purpose desktop PC.
To address these markets, Freescale is announcing the MPC837x and MPC8314/5. The 837x series are aimed primarily at applications like small business NAS, 802.11n wireless networks, and multifunction printers. The 8314/5 series are aimed at consumer applications like home NAS, home media hubs, and residential wireless gateways. The new storage processors integrate things like SATA, PCI Express (PCIe), USB 2.0, Gigabit Ethernet, XOR acceleration (which can facilitate crucial capabilities such as RAID), and security.
The company aimed at low cost, low power (both crucial in these markets), and a high level of integration of the features typically needed by OEMs developing storage-intensive applications. The integration of SATA hard disk interfaces, for example, reduces the BOM cost, as SATA is needed across the board in this class of storage systems. Integrated support for PCIe also reduces the BOM and provides the performance needed for small and medium business (SMB) as well as small office/home office (SOHO) and consumer applications.
The new MPC8379E features an e300 core with available speeds from 400MHz to 667MHz with a floating point unit and 32K D/I L1 cache. It includes 4 SATA I/II (3.0Gb/s) controllers, 1 standard PCI (2.3 – 32 bit up to 66MHz), 1 USB2.0 that can operate in host or client mode, and 2 3-way (10/100/1000) Ethernet MACs. It also includes an integrated security engine optimized for IPSEC and DTCP-IP. On the memory front, it supports 32/64 bit DDR1/DDR2 at 400MHz with ECC, a local bus with NAND support, and a multi-channel DMA controller. There is an 8378 variant that trades in the SATA for 2 x1 PCIe channels, and an 8377 version that includes both 2 PCIe and 2 SATA.
The MPC3815E features the same e300 core operating at a lower frequency range (266-400MHz), the same PCI 2.3, a USB 2.0 including the PHY, 2 (rather than 4) of the SATA I/II controllers, and adds 2 x1 PCIe v1.0a interfaces. It also includes the 2 Ethernet MACs, the multi-channel DMA controller, an integrated security engine, and support for TDM to connect to legacy CODEC for audio and like applications. An 8314 version skips the SATA.
The new family appears to be drop-dead easy for system integration. For example, start with an MPC8379E. Add in some DDR SDRAM, some flash, The PHY for gigabit Ethernet, and up to four hard disk drives feeding off the SATA ports, and you’ve got yourself a high-speed, high capacity NAS server. The XOR engine even allows hardware support for RAID 5. (fig 1)
All-in-all, the new PowerQUICC II Pro family nicely rounds out Freescale’s PowerQUICC line. The new family is optimized for BOM cost and power management, while offering the integrated features that are most commonly required by the SMB, SOHO, and consumer markets. With the explosion in consumer demand for secure, accessible storage for their growing digital media collections, we’d predict that this processor family will capture an enormous number of design-ins. When somebody uses one to solve my digital media storage problem – give me a call. I’ll be the first customer.