ARM Challenges Intel With 64-Bit PC And Server Chips


The ARMv8 chip architecture will bring ARM into closer competition with Intel and AMD in server and PC markets

ARM Holdings is taking a significant step forward in its ambitions to move its highly energy-efficient chip technology beyond mobile devices and into PCs and servers with the introduction of its first 64-bit architecture, ARMv8.

ARM officials released technical details of the new architecture at the ARM TechCon show in Santa Clara, California, in particular its 64-bit capabilities, which will enable chips built on the architecture to handle more memory and storage, and larger files than the company’s current 32-bit platform.

Added Power For Partners

The ARMv8 architecture will also bring ARM and its manufacturing partners into even closer competition with chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), both of whose x86-based processors are 64-bit capable and dominate the PC and server markets. Executives from ARM and its partners, including Nvidia, Calxeda and Marvell Technologies, have said for months they intend to bring the ARM architecture up the ladder and into the PC and server spaces to challenge Intel and AMD.

However, the lack of 64-bit capabilities – as well as other issues, including limited enterprise software support – were considered roadblocks to such ambitions. Most major operating systems are 64-bit, such as Microsoft’s Window and Apple’s Mac OS, though ARM will get a boost when Microsoft adds support in Windows 8 next year. With ARMv8, the company is clearing some of those hurdles, according to ARM CTO Mike Muller.

“With our increasingly connected world, the market for 32-bit processing continues to expand and evolve creating new opportunities for 32-bit ARMv7 based processors in embedded, real-time and open application platforms.” Muller said in a statement. “We believe the ARMv8 architecture is ideally suited to enable the ARM partnership to continue to grow in 32-bit application spaces and bring diverse, innovative and energy-efficient solutions to 64-bit processing markets.”

It may be a while before chip manufacturers and systems vendors can take advantage of the ARMv8 architecture. The company has made all specifications available to partners for licensing, and officials will disclose chips based on ARMv8 in 2012. However, consumer and enterprise prototype systems are not expected to hit the market until 2014.

Building on mobile domination

ARM creates the chip designs, and then licenses those designs to manufacturers, such as Nvidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Samsung Electronics. Low-power ARM-designed chips dominate the booming market for mobile devices, including tablets and smartphones. However, just as Intel and, to a lesser extent AMD, look to make inroads into those lucrative spaces, ARM also is looking to leverage the energy efficiency of its designs to gain traction in PCs and servers, particularly in hyperscale environments like Web businesses.

ARM may be on the verge of a significant move into that area. Hewlett-Packard is reportedly working with Calxeda to develop servers based on ARM chips, a move that would give ARM the backing of a top-tier OEM and deal a blow to Intel, which currently owns about 90 percent of the server market – and has HP as its top customer.

ARM’s current chip designs, including the Cortex-A9 and Cortex-A15, are based on its 32-bit ARMv7 architecture. The ARMv8 architecture will be backwards compatible with existing 32-bit software through its two main execution states – AArch64 for 64-bit computing and AArch32 for 32-bit computing.

Other key features of ARMv7, such as TrustZone for security and Neon for multimedia formats, will also be found in ARMv8.

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