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Colin Walls
Colin Walls
Colin Walls has over thirty years experience in the electronics industry, largely dedicated to embedded software. A frequent presenter at conferences and seminars and author of numerous technical articles and two books on embedded software, Colin is an embedded software technologist with Mentor … More »

Vintage multi-core – introduction

February 16th, 2015 by Colin Walls

Sometimes I think that there is nothing truly new in the world. With technology, it is often a question of the time being right. It occurred to me that the current enthusiasm for multi-core designs is really nothing new. I browsed some of the literature and titles like “Multi-core is here now” have been appearing for at least 5 years. But it goes back further still. I was working on a multi-core system in 1980 …

It was my first job out of college and I worked for a company that made materials testing instruments – large machines and systems that stressed and broke things under controlled conditions. The use of computer or microprocessor control was very new. Hitherto, the machines had been controlled by racks of analog electronics, with meters and chart recorders providing results. I worked in the division that provided the computer control. Initially, the approach was to simply link a mini-computer to a traditional console. The next – and, at the time, very brave – step was to replace the entire console with a microprocessor where a keypad enabled input of parameters and selection of settings on a screen.

The project, to which I was assigned, was to facilitate the “user programmability” of the new microprocessor controlled machines – the “User Programmability Option” or “UPO”. It was decided that the best way to provide this capability would be to add an additional computer instead of potentially compromising the real-time behavior of the controlling microprocessor.

The advanced console was built around a Texas Instruments 9900 microprocessor, which was one of the first true 16-bit, single chip devices on the market. It had quite an advanced architecture, with some interesting pros and cons: it could intrinsically support multi-threading in a very simple way, with context saving accommodated in hardware; but its registers were mostly RAM based, which, at the time, was a significant performance limiter. This part of the system was programmed in Forth. I have no idea why this design decision was made, but I found the language intriguing and I think it deserves a blog post of its own sometime.

The UPO computer was an SBC-11. The “11″ came from the internal processor, which was essentially a DEC PDP-11; a mini-computer which was very familiar to us at the time. “SBC” was short for “shoe box computer”, because that is what it looked like. We implemented user-programmability using a variant of the BASIC language, with some extensions to access capabilities of the testing machine.

The two computers were linked together by a shared memory interface, which proved an interesting challenge to get right. In a further post, I will outline the design of the inter-processor communication [IPC].

After many months of work, the project was completed and the system marketed. I made numerous customer demonstrations and I think we actually sold a few. I measured the success in terms of the technical achievement: it worked!

To be continued …

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