Farewell, x86 - Embedded.com

Farewell, x86


Farewell, x86All good things must come to an end. After more than 20 years, Intel is pulling the plug on its embedded x86 processors. The '186, '286, '386, and '486 will cease production in a few months, going to that great motherboard in the sky. The Pentium M will become Intel's entry-level embedded x86 processor, ending a long line of “x86” part numbers.

The company is also terminating life support for its 8051 and '251 chip families and launching the 8096 and i960 families into the great beyond. In short, many of the 8-bit, 16-bit, and 32-bit embedded processor families that we've grown to love will soon be pushing up daisies.

They say there are two kinds of programmers: those who'll admit they hate the x86 and liars. I did a lot of x86 assembly coding and wrote my first book on programming the '386 so I've got a soft spot for the chip family. The '386 was the first 32-bit x86 chip, and it introduced task management, privilege protection, paging, and other advanced features to mainstream microprocessors. Sadly, the dominant operating system of the time didn't use (and still doesn't use) most of those features. Embedded systems based on the '386 and '486 can be quite secure and reliable–despite all evidence to the contrary.

The much-unloved i960 family won't be missed by many. It was briefly popular in the early 1990s in laser printers and network routers. The i960 was one of Intel's early stabs at RISC architecture that never really caught on. It was more successful than the arcane i860 or the baroque i432, two almost unprogrammable (but wicked fast) architectures that slipped slowly and silently under the surface. The i960MX had the distinction of being the only octagonal microprocessor: it was too big for the optical reticle so its corners had to be cut off.

The 8051, on the other hand, is probably the most popular 8-bit processor ever. Dozens of companies make 8051 derivative chips, and they will now carry the torch for the dearly beloved 8051. You can even download free 8051-compatible CPU designs for your own FPGA or ASIC implementations. You, too, can be in the microprocessor business.

The 8051, '386, i960, and other soon-to-be extinct Intel processors had long and useful lives but they ultimately succumbed to the ravages of time. Ironically, it was Moore's Law that did them in. These old chips were designed decades ago for what now seem like Paleolithic fabrication processes. Although Intel dutifully upgraded the chips' production lines from time to time, they eventually reached the point of diminishing returns. No heroic measures here, it was time for the DNR order. Intel simply doesn't sell enough of these chips to warrant another expensive round of corrective surgery.

So raise a glass to your favorite old microprocessor. May its code long survive; may its databook rest quietly interred in the lab; may its development tools find their eternal reward. May we all find alternate sources for our vanished processors. Embedded systems programming lives on though the 8051 and '386 have gone to meet their maker.

Reader Response

not so fast!!!

Here are some of my predictions, (<$.02 worth anyhow)

x960 –> dead, or mostly dead
x251 –> dead
x860 –> dead
x430 –> dead

now:x80 –> alive, (mainly due to Zilog and Hitachi)
x86 –> alive, (mainly due to other vendors, NEC, AMD etc.)
x51 –> definitely alive, very much thriving!

Do not discount the power of the HUGE amount of expertise in the x80 and x86 arena…Especially the x80 stuff!

You have already mentioned the vast popularity of the x51 space! This x51 stuff is truly amazing in the number of design wins!

– Ken Wada
Sr Embedded Systems Consultant
Aurium Technologies Inc
San Jose, CA

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