Traditional x86 chip builder AMD to start making ARM processors

October 31, 2012
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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‚Äôre 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.

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