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Home :: System Integration :: Hardware

Host Media Processing


The inexorable march of Intel/AMD CPU horsepower has led many VoIP and video-over-IP infrastructure providers to embrace HMP, or Host Media Processing. In the HMP model, the x86 CPU does all the work, with no special-purpose DSP (digital signal processing) devices to assist.

Combined with the emergence of open source signaling and protocol software from providers such as Digium, Yate, and Freeswitch, the HMP model has gained marketplace traction. Established infrastructure vendors such as Dialogic and NMS offer HMP based systems. Even "Tier 2" infrastructure suppliers who traditionally have employed 10s or even 100s of software engineers to write proprietary implementations of voice and video protocols such as SS7, SIP, H.323, H.248, and H.264, are exploring the HMP model combined with open source software, in order to create low-cost platforms.

Chip Level Marketing

Intel has promoted a "world without DSPs" for 12 years -- "HMP" is only the latest label. It started with Intel's NSP (Native Signal Processing) initiative in the mid-1990s. Despite Intel's vision, during this time the DSP and FPGA vendors have thrived. Every year Texas Instruments, Mindspeed, Freescale, Xilinx, Altera, et. al. sell more chips than the year before. DSP and FPGA vendors have become as adept at exploiting inefficiencies of the x86 architecture as Intel is in improving it.

Intel marketing takes a "chip level" view, comparing raw MIPS per core. And not just Intel; all the chip vendors are engaged in data sheet wars. Instead, to accurately evaluate cost and benefit tradeoffs, a "board-level" view is needed. For example, on Intel's dual core Yonah device, 250 G729 channels may be possible, but what about board space, power consumption, heat, and I/O limitations? How many DRAM devices does a Yonah need? What size heat sink? Twelve (12) Texas Instruments 6-core DSP devices (that's 72 cores) and a network processor with GbE interface can be placed on a PMC card -- about the same board space as a CPU riser card. And with no heat sinks. That density yields 1150 G729 channels with direct GbE connection, with no packet interrupt rate or other OS-related limitations imposed on the HMP x86. Could five (5) Yonahs go in the same space and consume the same power? This is the line of questioning that chip level marketing fails to address.

HMP vs. DSP Tradeoffs

At low channel capacities, the HMP model is effective. As channel capacities increase, tradeoffs often lead to adding a "DSP accelerator" -- some type of add-in hardware that substantially increases the capacity of each server. When considering the "cross over point" at which to scale an HMP platform with a hardware add-on, there are some useful tradeoffs to keep in mind:

1) Channel Capacity. PC/server platforms have limited video and voice processing capability. As channel capacities increase, a cross-over region exists where a choice must be made to either add more servers or use a DSP accelerator. The cross-over point is reached sooner depending on the nature of the processing -- for example, for VoIP impacting factors include the type of voice codec (e.g. G729, G723, GSM-AMR, EVRC, etc), length of echo cancellation tail (if needed), and voice quality monitoring (also if needed).

Below is a curve showing HMP vs. DSP cross-over regions for a VoIP application, with codec processing complexity on the vertical axis and channel capacity on the horizontal axis.

The above graph shows HMP-to-DSP crossover for an approximate 3 GHz, dual Xeon machine.

2) Per Channel Cost. At low channel capacities, HMP is far more cost-effective than DSP. For simple G711 VoIP processing, a DSP accelerator is not required until the number of channels hits a limit in the 500 to 1500 channel range, reducing cost per channel to "zero" if one assumes the PC platform has to be there anyway and is an inherent cost. But for more complex processing -- or for algorithms which have significant associated licensing cost -- the cost per channel can be high.

The graph below gives some idea of typical cost per channel figures for a DSP solution.

The above graph assumes the cost of the first HMP server itself is "free"; i.e. the server has to be there anyway to act as a host platform, and assumes about a $10/channel cost for HMP server licensing cost for "complex" codecs such as G729, GSM-AMR, etc.

3) IP rights cost must be considered. For example, when a VoIP application requires 100 or more G729 or EVRC channels on an HMP platform, who pays the $1000+ per system royalty cost? DSPs typically embed IP rights cost within the individual chip cost. Semiconductor suppliers like Texas Instruments often possess leverage to make favorable IP licensing deals due to their patent portfolio and cross-licensing options. How many voice and video codec patents does Intel have compared to TI, Qualcomm, etc? A quiet submarine is not achieved without practicing for decades. Intel has not done that; the DSP vendors have.

4) Power Consumption. Power consumption and "system wide complexity" costs rise exponentially with HMP servers. Doubling the number of HMP servers more than doubles "latent costs" such as power consumption because more than half the electricity cost of an HMP server is wasted in voice and video applications. As the number of HMP servers increases, more electricity is wasted, both in terms of duplicated functions and in terms of cooling. Likewise, maintenance cost increases and MTBF decreases with more cabling, more fans, more power cords, etc.

Foreseeable Future

Will more powerful CPUs ever displace DSPs? A simple way to look at this is that Intel/AMD x86 processors -- in order to provide legacy software support and make their host systems standardized and easy to use -- must contain millions of transistors to support Windows and Linux motherboards. More than 80% of these transistors are wasted when the x86 is asked to perform voice and video processing. This is the "Intel penalty" for monopolizing the PC/server motherboard market. The conclusion is straightforward: for the foreseeable future, DSP and FPGA vendors will continue to exploit this inefficiency, and DSP hardware acceleration will continue to play a key role in scalable HMP platforms.

Multi-Core VoIP

On a single half-size PCI VoIP card Signalogic has been able to place 72 cores, 600 MHz each, with total power consumption of only 23 W; with no heatsinks required. In terms of raw number of cores, the closest x86 solution is a Tyan "Super PC" with 40 cores. In terms of power consumption, there is no x86 solution remotely comparable.