System on a Chip (SoC) Architecture

Computer hardware typically consists of a motherboard, processor, IO boards, graphic cards, and hard drives. Every now and then we see some evolution to this, but the overall concept is the same. A computer is as fast as it’s slowest component. As certain components speed up, other components become the slowest part.

The most recent evolution in architecture was the conversion from magnetic platter hard drives to solid state drives. This improved speeds for computers tremendously. In fact, if you had an old computer and simply converted your storage from hard drives to SSD technology, you would probably get massive speed improvements.

With high speed processors, graphic cards, RAM, and SSD cards, where is the modern system the slowest? The BUS. That is, the motherboard itself. Communicating between the processor, the memory, and the graphics card is done through the bus. We can only go as fast as the highway (bus) lets us communicate.

This is where the system on a chip technology comes in. By including more technology directly into a single chip, there’s no need for the bus architecture for the components built into the chip. SoC processors will include more functionality such as built-in RAM, built-in graphics, and possibly more in the future.

You might think that current computer technology is very fast. But imagine when you need to process terabytes of data in a very short time? Applications such as facial recognition software, machine learning, and even games will become more robust. Hardware engineers always want to get the best performance possible and software engineers are always restricted by what’s possible for the hardware. An end-user might not see what’s possible with future technologies, but trust me there’s tons of things we simply cannot do yet because computers aren’t fast enough.

There are other advantages to system on a chip architecture. Heat is a big problem in high performance hardware and heat is dissipated more easily on these systems.

The first system on a chip high performance computer on the market is the new MACs using the Apple M1 processor. These new computers launched by Apple are much faster than their intel predecessors. But there’s one major downfall. Software compatibility! Apple has an emulator that helps all the old software written for Macs to run. Great. But Windows and Linux can’t run on the M1 just yet. That will come soon though.

In the next few years expect to see everyone coming out with their system on a chip hardware. AMD and Intel most certainly. But I also anticipate NVIDIA and others to come out with theirs as well. I also think we’ll start seeing integrated storage as well. Modern motherboards will become passive and all the technology will be on the SOC card. I predict we’ll see multi-system motherboards where you can actually install more than one system inside a single computer. But that’s a little more than we’ll get into in this article.

The point of all this is to make you aware that there’s a brand new architecture coming and it’s going to be a heated war as the major chip manufacturers all rush to get their share of the turf. Things are about to get really fast for us and really competitive for them. Will AMD rule the roost? Will Intel surprise us all? I’ve got a quiet bet on NVIDIA coming out with their own CPU and integrating it into their graphics card technology.