By Barry Wood, Tundra Semiconductor
pldesignline.com (January 14, 2009)
RapidIO, PCIe, and Ethernet each offer unique benefits. We explain how each technology works, and examine its strengths and weaknesses. We also show why RapidIO is often the best choice for embedded systems.
While there are many ways to connect components in embedded systems, the most prominent are the high speed serial standards of Ethernet, PCI Express, and RapidIO. All of these standards leverage similar Serializer/De-serializer (SerDes) technology to deliver throughput and latency performance greater than what is possible with wide parallel bus technology. For example, RapidIO and PCI Express leveraged the XAUI SerDes technology developed for Ethernet.
The trend towards leveraging a common SerDes technology will continue with future versions of these specifications. The implication is that raw bandwidth is not a significant differentiator for these protocols. Instead, the usefulness of each protocol is determined by how the bandwidth is used.Protocol summaries
Most designers are familiar with basic Ethernet protocol characteristics. Ethernet is a 'best effort' means of delivering packets. The software protocols built on top of the Ethernet physical layer, such as TCP/IP, are necessary to provide reliable delivery of information, as Ethernet-based systems generally perform flow control at the network layer, not the physical layer. Typically, the bandwidth of Ethernet-based systems is over-provisioned by between 20 and 70%. Ethernet is best suited for high latency inter-chassis applications or on-board/inter-board applications where bandwidth requirements are low.
PCI Express (PCIe), in contrast, is optimized for reliable delivery of packets within an on-board interconnect where latencies are typically in the microsecond range. The PCIe protocol exchanges Transaction Layer Packets (TLPs) such as reads and writes, and smaller quantities of link-specific information called Data Link Layer Packets (DLLPs). DLLPs are used for link management functions, including physical layer flow control. PCIe was designed to be backwards compatible with the legacy of PCI and PCI-X devices, which assumed that the processor(s) sat at the top of a hierarchy of buses. This had the advantage of leveraging PCI-related software and hardware intellectual property. As discussed later in this article, the PCI bus legacy places significant constraints on the switched PCIe protocol.
RapidIO technology has been optimized for embedded systems, particularly those which require multiple processing elements to cooperate. Like PCIe, the RapidIO protocol exchanges packets and smaller quantities of link-specific information called control symbols. RapidIO has characteristics of both PCIe and Ethernet. For example, RapidIO provides both reliable and unreliable packet delivery mechanisms. RapidIO also has many unique capabilities which make it the optimal interconnect for on-board, inter-board, and short distance (<100 m) inter-chassis applications.
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