Amazon shows how the Internet of Things should be done

Microcontroller and circuit board

One of the announcements that may have been overlooked among the slew of news coming out of Amazon’s AWS re:Invent conference was of Amazon FreeRTOS, an operating system for microcontrollers that is aimed at the Internet of Things (IoT). With this, Amazon is starting to build out an entire ecosystem that covers both devices and cloud-based services to deliver on IoT applications.

FreeRTOS is actually a product that has been around for some years. It is a compact real-time operating system kernel that supports a wide range of microprocessor architectures, from the venerable Intel 8051 to x86, ARM and microcontrollers from the likes of Atmel and NXP.

Last year, the developer of FreeRTOS joined Amazon, and so stewardship of the project has been taken over by Amazon Web Services (AWS). The firm has now created a version of the operating system that adds software libraries enabling devices to connect securely to the cloud, receive software updates over the network, and other functions.

The result is a platform that should make it relatively simple for developers to code typical IoT applications, which will be able to target a number of different silicon platforms, with initial supported listed as Microchip, NXP, STMicroelectronics, and Texas Instruments.

As an example, developers can make use of MQTT based messaging to link FreeRTOS devices to the AWS IoT Core service, which serves as a kind of hub to enable secure interaction with cloud applications and other devices.

Naturally, the main purpose of FreeRTOS is to create IoT devices that can connect up to Amazon’s AWS services, aggregating sensor data and uploading it for collating and analysis in the cloud, for example. Amazon’s goal is to get as many people as possible using its cloud services, and FreeRTOS adds the endpoint piece to the puzzle of building a comprehensive ecosystem that should make AWS an attractive destination for those looking to build an IoT project.

Also unveiled at re:Invent were new services coming next year, such as AWS IoT Device Defender, designed to audit endpoint devices to ensure they adhere to best practices, detect abnormal device behaviour, and offer mitigation for security issues, along with an IoT Device Management service and a fully-managed IoT Analytics service to automates all of the steps that required to analyse reams of data from IoT devices.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that AWS and FreeRTOS would be an ideal candidate for every organisation or developer that is putting together an IoT type of application, but the cloud giant has made itself an attractive destination for many projects that may involve simple sensor and data collection processes.

Thoughts on Intel and AMD’s chip partnership

Sometimes, the news causes you to do a double-take, such as when Microsoft announced it was developing a Linux version of SQL Server or when Intel struck a deal with ARM to manufacture ARM-based chips for third parties.

The latest shocker also involves Intel, but this time it is teaming up with arch rival AMD to deliver a new Core processor for the mobile market that features an AMD Radeon GPU and HBM2 memory, all in a single chip package. The first fruits of this collaboration are set to come to market in the first quarter of 2018, including systems from major vendors, according to Intel.

Intel's Core chip with AMD Radeon GPU

At first glance, this may seem an unlikely partnership. Intel and AMD have been bitter rivals in the chip market since AMD started producing chips to compete against Intel’s 486 processors back in the 1990s.

However, it makes more sense if you think that both of the companies face competition in the GPU space from a third player, Nvidia. Intel’s integrated graphics and GPU capabilities in its processors have never been a match for those offered by Nvidia and AMD (which acquired graphics chipmaker ATI about a decade ago).

Intel’s official line regarding the new product is that it addresses a gap in the market for a “thinner, lighter, more powerful enthusiast mobile platform that delivers a premium experience.” Currently, a premium mobile platform calls for a processor paired with a discrete GPU chip, which isn’t ideal if you want to deliver a thin and light system.

What Intel needed was to integrate high performance graphics with the processor, and as its own graphics cannot cut the mustard, it needed a third party solution.

The bit of engineering magic that makes all this possible is Intel’s Embedded Multi-Die Interconnect Bridge (EMIB) technology, which is a method of linking several silicon dies together in the one package using small bridges under the edges where they meet.

One advantage of this is that you can deliver a composite product from several dies that may come from different sources and produced using different manufacturing processes, and this is what the upcoming product does.

The yet to be named product, which will be part of Intel’s 8th Gen Core family, combines an Intel processor chip with what it describes as a semi-custom graphics chip from AMD’s Radeon division. In effect, AMD is producing a customised version of one of its discrete Radeon GPUs that Intel can then integrate to deliver the end product.

But there is an epilogue to this tale. Shortly after the announcement of the new chip, Intel disclosed it had hired AMD’s Raja Koduri, senior vice president and chief architect of the Radeon Technologies Group.

Koduri is to head up a newly formed Core and Visual Computing Group within Intel, and will spearhead a new effort to expand Intel’s integrated graphics with new high-end discrete graphics solutions.

Far from being a new-found partnership between Intel and AMD, the forthcoming chip can be seen as simply a stopgap while Intel boosts its own graphics proficiency, by poaching AMD’s graphics talent.


Something EPYC is missing from mainstream servers

HPE Cloudline CL3150 server

The major server vendors have all now officially announced a refresh of their portfolios, most timing this to coincide with the official launch of Intel’s Xeon Scalable processors this week.

HPE detailed its Gen 10 wave of servers last month, but Dell EMC, Lenovo and Cisco all saved much of the detail until Intel’s official announcement regarding its new server processors, based on the Skylake architecture.

This is no real surprise, as we’ve got used to the vendors tying their refresh cycles to the availability of new processor platforms.

But wait, where are the systems based on AMD’s EPYC processor platform, a chip designed to take on Intel’s Xeon processors? At the EPYC launch in Austin, Texas last month, AMD disclosed a number of vendors supporting their new chips, which included Dell EMC, HPE and Lenovo.

I asked Lenovo where its AMD-based systems are, and the firm was somewhat less than forthcoming. One product manager stated that he had no knowledge of any EPYC models, while the official line from the firm’s press office is that their servers are Intel-based.

So, I checked back to AMD’s announcement of the EPYC server chips, and sure enough, there is an endorsement from Lenovo:

“The AMD EPYC processors present unique opportunities for our customers to lower Total Cost of Ownership via an unprecedented balance of cores, memory bandwidth, and I/O. We are excited to collaborate with AMD and several global Hyperscale customers to develop and deploy single socket and dual socket EPYC-based servers,” said Paul Ju, vice president and general manager, Lenovo Global Hyperscale Business.

It would seem that if Lenovo is using AMD EPYC chips in systems, these are being supplied by a different business unit that targets the hyperscale market, while its enterprise servers are entirely Intel-based.

Lenovo is not the only vendor taking this path; HPE’s sole EPYC server disclosed so far is the Cloudline CL3150 (pictured), an ultra-dense rack-mount system targeting software-designed storage clusters, again for the hyperscale and service provider markets.

Many of the other brands lined up by AMD are well-known white-box vendors such as Supermicro, Tyan, Inventec and Wistron, which also sell into the hyperscale market.

Meanwhile, Dell EMC gave a supporting presentation at AMD’s event in Austin, yet its 14G announcement makes no mention of EPYC-based systems, nor are any listed on its site.

The situation thus seems to be that the Tier 1 vendors are all steering away from offering EPYC-based systems to compete directly with Intel’s Xeon platform, except in the hyperscale arena, where factors such as up-front cost and performance per watt override other considerations.

Is this because the big vendors not want to risk the wrath of Intel by putting up Xeon and EPYC systems against each other, or is it that their analysis of AMD’s chips has convinced all of them that it is ideally suited to a different role than that of Intel’s?

The reality is that it could be either reason, or both. Or to put it another way, vendors such as HPE enthusiastically backed AMD’s earlier Opteron server chips, only to see the company fail to keep up with Intel’s rapid pace of development, and so the sizable fraction of the server market that AMD managed to grab for itself slowly declined and customers drifted back to Intel-based systems as their servers reached end of life and were replaced.

Lenovo, HPE and Dell EMC are likely taking the approach that they won’t rush to offer AMD-based enterprise servers immediately, and are waiting to see if there is customer demand for them. With server shipments to enterprises reportedly declining because of the growth in cloud services, this may never materialise.

Then again, perhaps AMD was wise to develop a chip that is ideally suited to high-density servers for the service provider market: this is the area that is showing the strongest growth at the moment, after all. With up to 32 cores, 8 memory channels and 128 PCIe lanes, AMD can claim with some justification that a single-socket EPYC server can do the duty of a traditional two-socket system, at much lower cost.

UPDATE: I asked Dell for details of its EPYC-based servers, and this is the response I received:

Yesterday Dell EMC launched the first wave of its 14th Generation of PowerEdge servers aligned to Intel processors, PowerEdge servers based on the AMD EPYC processors will be available in the second half of 2017.

AMD Ryzen Pro to bring workstation-class performance to desktops

AND Ryzen Pro graphic

AMD is aiming at the enterprise desktop market with an upcoming Ryzen Pro processor family based on its Zen core design, taking on Intel’s Core chips by offering more cores and greater security through encrypted memory support.

With Ryzen Pro, AMD is aiming at the corporate market, in contrast to its consumer-focused Ryzen chips launched earlier this year. The firm claimed that this is an important market for it, with over 350 major corporate customers, and said that it expects to double the number of enterprise-class products using its chips by the end of the year.

“We have a lot of momentum in the commercial space of the market, and now with the technology of Ryzen Pro, we believe we can take that to the next level,” said John Hampton, director of commercial business development for AMD.

Many people will be surprised to learn that desktop PCs are still around. The reality is that while laptops may have largely displaced desktop systems, they still have value for businesses in office environments and especially for smaller businesses.

Ryzen Pro is clearly being positioned against Intel’s Core processors, with AMD dividing up its portfolio into the Ryzen 7 Pro, Ryzen 5 Pro and Ryzen 3 Pro segments against the Core i7, Core i5 and Core i3, with clock speeds of up to 3.7GHz with frequency boost.

AMD Ryzen Pro vs Intel Core

As with the EPYC server processor that AMD recently launched, the firm is trying to compete by offering more cores in each segment. Thus Ryzen 7 Pro has 8 cores against the 4 of the Core i7, the Ryzen 5 Pro has up to 6 cores against the 4 of the Core i5, and Ryzen 3 Pro has 4 cores against the 2 of Core i3.

“Ryzen Pro for us will be a no-compromise solution versus Intel vPro,” said Hampton, claiming that AMD’s new platform has “more cores and more threads at every price point”.

AMD claimed that benchmark figures show that a Ryzen 7 Pro delivers up to 62 percent more multi-threaded performance than Core i7.

“We’re designing for the future. We believe that more and more commercial workloads will demand more core, more threads, more power, and so on,” Hampton added.

The target markets for each segment are power users running content creation and scientific applications for Ryzen 7 Pro, while Ryzen 5 Pro is the mainstream platform for advanced productivity, and Ryzen 3 Pro is for office productivity and entry-level tasks.

AMD Ryzen Pro SKUs

While the firm claims ‘workstation class’ performance for Ryzen Pro, the chips are aimed at business desktops and so not intended to compete with Intel’s Xeon chips in the actual workstation market. The upcoming Ryzen “Threadripper” may address this market. It will be comprised of two silicon dies rather than the single one of the Ryzen Pro, making for a processor with twice the number of memory channels and up to 16 CPU cores.

And despite AMD touting Ryzen Pro for content creation and scientific applications, it is a purely CPU-based chip, not an APU that integrates GPU cores like many of AMD’s existing processor lines. It is expected that the Ryzen Mobile chips for laptops will be APUs and combine Zen cores with AMD’s Vega GPU core. Meanwhile, Ryzen Pro systems will have to rely on discrete GPUs, either on the motherboard or in a PCIe slot.

But AMD is not merely counting on performance to differentiate from Intel’s chips. Like the EPYC line, Ryzen Pro features a built-in AMD Secure Processor that provides a hardware-based root of trust against malware threats, plus the transparent memory encryption technology that can be used to secure areas of memory used to store sensitive data, or the entire memory of the system.

As with EPYC, there is a small performance overhead when memory encryption is enabled, but this is in the order of a one or two per cent reduction in performance, AMD claims.

The AMD Secure Processor provides a secure boot feature by validating the system firmware to ensure it has not been tampered with before it will allow the processor cores to come out of their reset state and begin the normal boot process.

This is designed to prevent malware attacks that come in under the level of the operating system and attack the firmware, making them hard to detect and remediate.

AMD Ryzen Pro graphic

Ryzen Pro also features AMD’s SenseMI technologies, a set of adaptive features to a tweak the processor for optimum performance, as seen in the consumer Ryzen chips. These include Precision Boost to adjust the clock speed in 25MHz increments, and Pure Power, which is the flip side of this and optimises the power consumption for the workload.

With Ryzen Pro aimed at business buyers, other important features are reliability, stability, and manageability.

On the reliability front, AMD claims that the Pro products are sourced from silicon wafers with the highest yields to ensure fewer defective parts. Meanwhile, AMD offers 18 months stability for drivers and other low-level software, plus 24 month availability of processor SKUs for vendors.

On the manageability side, AMD supports the DASH standard developed by the DMTF (Distributed Management Task Force). The advantage of DASH is that it is cross-platform, and will work with both Intel and AMD platforms.

Availability of Ryzen Pro is set for the official launch on 29 August, when AMD will disclose the vendors which are offering systems based on the new chips, and information of the pricing versus Intel’s Core chips.


HPE Gen 10 servers offer built-in security and custom Intel Xeon SKUs


HPE Gen 10 servers

HPE is aiming to widen its appeal to enterprise customers with its Gen 10 wave of servers based on Intel’s latest Xeon processors, adding security into the hardware to combat security threats, more predictable performance in turbo mode, and new payment options for mid-size firms.

Announced at HPE Discover in Las Vegas, the 10th generation of HPE’s x86 server systems is based on Intel’s Xeon Processor Scalable family, announced by the chipmaker last month. These will be rolled out across the breadth of its portfolio, according to HPE, including the ProLiant, Synergy, Apollo, Superdome and Cloudline families.

HPE said that the new systems have been designed to address three key areas of concern for organisations; agility, security and economic control.

“When we were trying to think a few years back about building our next generation of compute, we thought, how can we have the best possible agility on-prem? How can we have security that is unmatched in the industry? What can we do so that customers can decide how to manage best control their economies of scale, the way to spend their money, and how they scale in the future?” said Alain Andreoli, senior vice president for HPE’s Data Center Infrastructure Group.

HPE iLO management chipHPE’s new “silicon root of trust” security capability is built into a custom chip fitted to the system board and works with the integrated lights-out (iLO) management controller in each HPE server. This enables it to protect the integrity of the system firmware right from its point of manufacture all the way through to operational deployment, what HPE dubs the Secure Compute Lifecycle.

Uniquely, according to HPE chief technology officer Mark Potter, the silicon root of trust can also recover the system back to a previous authenticated state, rather than just preventing it from booting up if it detects that the firmware does not match the correct digital fingerprint.

“We feel it is very important to keep the system up and running, so we built an automatic recovery capability right into our secure system,” he said.

The new iLO also includes the ability to automate maintenance upgrades for servers with support for scheduling and rollback, simplifying operations management in data centres where HPE systems are being operated at any kind of scale.

Addressing the agility question is the latest version 3.1 of HPE’s OneView unified infrastructure management tool, which provides HPE systems with new composable storage capabilities and support to help customers to deploy key applications and infrastructure software including the Mesosphere containers platform.

“We have made OneView now template driven so that these key applications can be moved and migrated and run automatically, and we have also integrated Mesosphere as one of the templates in OneView,” said Andreoli.

HPE also disclosed it is using custom SKUs of Intel’s Skylake-based Xeon Processor Scalable family, in order to deliver greater performance for customers when using turbo mode. This is implemented as three features collectively called Intelligent System Tuning, to be available on selected ProLiant Gen 10 servers.

“We’ve worked very closely on Intel on how do we take better advantage of the ability to run turbo mode, which is based on workload and environment, how do we speed the processor up, and so we uniquely have the ability to run in turbo mode with these special SKUs,” said Potter.

Intel Xeon Processor ScalableCore Boosting offers the ability to dynamically increase the turbo frequency, while Jitter Smoothing makes for more consistent performance when switching core speeds. Workload Matching provides templates to optimise the processor for specific workloads.

“One of the drawbacks of turbo mode is this notion that you’re going to go into turbo mode and change frequency, and every time you make these big changes in clock frequency because of the dynamic of the workload, you can create delays or latency. So we have a patent on how to smooth this out and keep a consistent deterministic behaviour for the application, but run it at the fastest level of performance,” Potter explained.

This capability could be important for industry sectors such as financial trading, where predictable deterministic performance is important.

“Every transaction has to behave the same, so jitter smoothing is key for that segment,” he added.

The Gen 10 systems also feature Scalable Persistent Memory, an extension of HPE’s existing persistent memory technology that combines DRAM with flash chips to make a non-volatile DIMM (NVDIMM). HPE gave away few details other than saying this will now be available at “terabyte scale” for all ProLiant systems.

Meanwhile, HPE is offering new purchasing options that bring the benefits of flexible purchasing to a wider range of customers. Flexible Capacity, which has been available for several years, offers enterprises a pay-as-you-go option based on the compute capacity they use.

The new Capacity Care Services are available for Gen 10 systems and aimed at mid-size customers, offering them usage tracking reports with a quarterly consultation to assess and manage their compute capacity as necessary. This will help customers save money by eliminating overprovisioning of capacity, HPE said.


Some thoughts on Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and its DeX docking cradle

Samsung’s newest Galaxy smartphone range was launched to great fanfare last week, but came with an unexpected surprise. No, not an exploding battery, but a docking cradle that turns it into a desktop computer.

The latest line-up of Samsung’s flagship handset comprises two models, the Galaxy S8 and Galaxy S8+, that are everything you would expect from the leading smartphone vendor. They offer a choice of display size – 5.8in and 6.2in – multi-core processors, support for the latest high-speed networks, and the Android 7.0 Nougat operating system.

Owners of the new devices can also pick up an unusual optional extra for their Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+, in the shape of the DeX. This looks rather like a fancy black ashtray, but turns out to be a docking cradle that comes with an Ethernet port, HDMI video output and full-size USB 2.0 and USB Type C ports.

As well as charging the phone, the DeX lets you connect up to a desktop monitor, keyboard and mouse, and presumably also to a LAN using the Ethernet port, effectively turning your phone into a desktop computer. When plugged in like this, the user interface switches to a desktop-style user interface to make use of the larger display.

Samsung Galaxy S8 and DeX desktop cradle

This is an interesting concept, and one that has been mooted before. The comparison many in the tech industry are making is to the Continuum feature of Windows 10, which is intended to offer a similar large-screen experience for users of phones running Windows 10, when connected to a monitor. But the Windows Phone platform is essentially going nowhere, and many mobile watchers have pretty much written it off as dead.

However, it is also a feature that Ubuntu firm Canonical touted for its proposed Edge “superphone” back in 2013. This was to have been a high-spec smartphone running Ubuntu Linux, which would switch between a mobile user interface and a full Linux desktop shell, depending on whether it was docked or not. Sadly, the Edge never met its crowdfunding target on Indiegogo, and so did not go into production.

Samsung’s implementation of the concept could potentially attract interest from professional users because of the fact that key apps such as Microsoft’s Office Mobile suite are available for Android, and someone whose role mostly involves document work in Microsoft Office could conceivably run this on a Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ connected to a monitor, in place of a desktop computer.

Another potential use case is not as a PC per se, but as a thin client for accessing virtual desktop (VDI) sessions. Here, the user would have access to a full-blown Windows desktop running full Windows apps, with the docked Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ serving as a terminal. Both Citrix and VMware offer Android versions of their VDI client software, which Dell Wyse used to deliver a pocket-sized thin client in the shape of the Cloud Connect device several years back.

Citrix also showed off its receiver client running on a smartphone connected to a monitor screen as far back as 2010, although this required a handset with an HDMI output to function, and few had this.

Although Samsung seems to have made a splash with DeX at the Galaxy S8 launch, is there actually much call for this usage model? While the ability to turn your smartphone into a desktop client system is a neat trick, who would actually use such a system?

Most mobile professionals currently use a laptop, and plug that into a desktop display when they are in the office. The laptop has a decent sized screen that you can take out on the road with you, while with the Samsung DeX, you leave your big screen and keyboard behind in the office when you go roaming.

Samsung DeX desktop cradle

While it is conceivable that there may be some mobile worker roles in which a big screen is needed only in the office, and a smartphone is sufficient while out on the road, these would seem to be a bit of a niche. Few people would suggest that a smartphone with its small screen and lack of a physical keyboard would be suitable for intensive work – they tend to be used for checking emails or looking up information.

Then there is the fact that the suggested price of the DeX docking cradle – $149.99 in the US – is not much lower than many existing thin client terminals from established vendors in this market such as HP and Dell Wyse, so anyone choosing to equip their staff with a Galaxy device and a DeX to use as a VDI client would not really be saving much.

In addition, the lifecycle of a smartphone tends to be much shorter than that of a corporate device like a thin client terminal. Users tend to upgrade their phones every couple of years, whereas thin clients are often good for up to seven years of use.

Another potential pitfall is that you may invest in a bunch of Galaxy S8 or Galaxy S8+ handsets and DeX cradles, only to find that Samsung may no longer support DeX with any successor generation of Galaxy devices.

While Samsung is to be applauded for exploring a novel use of smartphones with the DeX hardware, it may find that the main market for this will be found among consumers or tech enthusiasts rather than business customers.