Traditional x86 chip builder AMD to start making ARM processors

by: Gary SimsOctober 31, 2012

In the old days (of like 24 hours ago) companies like Samsung, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments made ARM chips, while Intel and AMD made x86 based CPUs. Simple. Well not any more. AMD have announced that not only will it make x86 based CPUs but it will now make ARM based chips as well.

ARM based processors, which tech companies license from the British company ARM Holdings,  are the most widely used 32-bit CPUs around. They can be found in a whole variety of devices including the majority of Android, Apple and Microsoft based smartphones and tablets.

By making this radical move and having one foot in each camp, AMD is taking a new direction where it no longer has to directly fight with Intel. AMD won’t be making ARM processors for mobile devices but instead it will create 64-bit multi-core processors built especially for energy-efficient servers. Traditionally servers have run on x86 based platforms which is dominated by Intel. Although there are some exceptions to this, like IBM’s Power systems and Oracle’s SPARC processors, Intel has a huge server market share. AMD has tried competing with Intel with its Opteron processors but it has never managed to have more than 10% of the market.

However things in the chip world are changing. With Microsoft now supporting Windows 8 on ARM (Windows RT) it is feasible that Microsoft could release a version of Windows Server for ARM, however it has stated publicly that it has no immediate plans to do so. Most people forget that the modern versions of Windows are based on Windows NT (and not Windows 3.1, 95, 98 etc) and that Microsoft used to sell a version of Windows NT for Digital’s 64-bit Alpha CPU. If Microsoft do release a server version of Windows for ARM, it won’t be the first time Microsoft stray away from Intel.

AMD will market the ARM server chips under its existing Opteron brand with the first chip expected to appear in 2014. If you looked at the recent photos of Google’s data center you can see just how many servers a big tech company uses. All those servers require power and I am sure Google’s electricity bill isn’t small. The trend is now for higher performance-per-watt systems for cloud computing applications.

This isn’t the first time AMD have made such a bold move. Today we take 64-bit x86 (x86-64) chips as the normal, but it wasn’t always that way. When 64-bit was becoming popular, Intel refused to make an  x86-64 CPU and instead invested millions into the doomed Itanium CPU. AMD on the other hand released the 64-bit x86 based AMD Opteron processor. That was in 2003. This new move by AMD makes it the only processor maker bridging the x86 and 64-bit ARM ecosystems.  ARMv8 based CPUs are also fully compatible with software compiled for ARMv7, which will simplify the transition to 64-bits.

Linux will benefit immediately. Red Hat, the popular Linux server distribution, was on-hand during AMD’s announcement. Jon Masters, its Chief ARM Architect said, “we’re excited about sharing our enterprise Linux expertise with AMD and the ecosystem as they are striving to become a disruptive force for choice in the emerging ARM-based server market.” He went on to say that future releases of  Fedora and Red Hat would support AMD’s ARM chips.

There will then be a knock on effect for Android. There are days coming when smartphones and tablets will run on 64-bit ARM chips and AMD will be there somewhere in the mix.

What do you think? Good move for AMD? Good news for ARM? Please leave a comment below.

  • The Calm Critic

    “AMD will be there somewhere in the mix.”
    Are we sure on that front Gary? I don’t know… AMD might just baby step it further 3-4 years down the road and play the server game just? And if they do that, they can’t or won’t ever get out of servers’ space.

    I only hope for the positive if AMD does have a sneaky one to branch out its ARM ambitions as I’m an AMD fan. But recent times suggest that they aren’t really helping themselves as far as timely execution goes. This is gonna be a helluva trickier mess to sort, to juggle ARM against their ongoing core expertise(s) which is x86-64 CPUs and Radeon graphics. The roughly resounding success on the latter so far (well as far as the enthusiast market is concerned) has somewhat dulled their edge to complacency it seems. It’s almost like “Hey! Our Radeon cards RULEZ! So that’s that folks” kind of misplaced buoyancy.

    For starters AMD are caught and have no choice right now but to still push through the x86-64 Fusion/ APUs’ initiative on schedule. The laptop APUs aren’t going as fast to spread out OEMs as it should. That and bringing in the newer Piledrivers to fix the Bulldozer mess cuts some brownie points off timing-wise. These are mostly FX chips for the NON-masses you may argue but therein lies the timing problem.

    Intel are doing the brave x86-64 port over mobile right now with its Clovertrail and obviously this arch rival are one fighter AMD wouldn’t want to underestimate. On top off entrenched ARM licensees such as Qualcomm and Samsung’s Exynos.

    Luckily so far these guys won’t be making ARM server chips anytime soon though.

  • Bruce

    This also means that Linux users can finally have their cake and eat it, too. We can run our usual open source software and run Android efficiently in a virtual machine, or dual-boot it. Then, we can potenitially run applications like Netflix via Android.