Feature: ARM and Intel on collision course

By Graeme Burton
15 Nov 2012 View Comments
arm-v-intel

When AMD signed up to become a licensee of ARM’s 64-bit microprocessor technology at the end of October, it marked the culmination of more than a year of rumour and speculation. The alliance between the two opens up the possibility of a new challenge to industry giant Intel in the server and, perhaps, PC and laptop microprocessor markets.

Further reading

AMD is not alone. In early 2011, graphics-card maker Nvidia revealed Project Denver, an ambitious plan to design Nvidia CPUs for server and PC microprocessors - all based on ARM’s architecture combined with Nvidia’s own GPGPU (General Purpose Graphics Processing Unit) for fast execution of mathematical queries.

“ARM is the fastest-growing CPU architecture in history,” says Jen-Hsun Huang, president and CEO of Nvidia. “This marks the beginning of the ‘Internet everywhere’ era, where every device provides instant access to the internet, using advanced CPU cores and rich operating systems.”

But the decision was about more than just technology, he hints: “ARM’s pervasiveness and open business model make it the perfect architecture for this new era.”

And electronics giant Samsung is also a keen, if secretive, licensee of the 64-bit ARM designs. It is expected to be among the first to market with products in mid-2013.

Even some of Intel’s biggest customers and closest partners are getting in on the action. This summer server maker Dell unveiled Copper, a server based on 32-bit ARM, which Dell is shipping to customers for evaluation as part of a ‘seed’ programme. “We began testing ARM server technology internally in 2010, and built servers so we could accurately understand the potential advantages,” says Steve Cummins, executive director with Dell’s Data Center Solutions division.

And Dell is not alone. HP has also unveiled hardware with “ARM inside”.

Soon, the most talked about battle in technology will not be Apple versus Samsung, but ARM versus Intel.

“Over the past decade the computer industry has coalesced around two high-volume processor architectures - x86 for personal computers and servers, and ARM for mobile devices,” says Nathan Brookwood, research fellow at semiconductor analyst group Insight 64. “Over the next decade, the purveyors of these established architectures will each seek to extend their presence into market segments dominated by the other.”

Big deal

What makes the recent announcements particularly significant is that they relate to ARM’s first 64-bit microprocessors. While the Copper servers unveiled this year by Dell run 32-bit ARM microprocessors, by 2014 AMD, Calxeda, Nvidia and Samsung - among others - will all be producing 64-bit products intended not for smartphones, but for servers.

According to Linley Group analyst Kevin Krewell, AMD’s licensing deal is especially significant. It took a particularly long time to negotiate because ARM wanted more from AMD than it sought from the typical licensee. In addition to a defensive patent cross-licensing agreement, it also sought AMD’s know-how to help it break into the server market.

AMD plans to develop Opteron server microprocessors that mix ARM’s technology with AMD’s own architecture at the die level. “Small and efficient CPUs, like ARM’s, bring a very unique capability to the datacentre,” wrote AMD senior vice president and general manager Lisa Su in her blog.

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