There have been lots of companies that designed and built CPUs over the years including HP, Sun, IBM, DEC, VIA and of course Intel, AMD and ARM. Most of these companies have either switched to Intel or are only supplying CPUs for their in-house products. The exceptions are AMD and ARM. AMD has tried (and in many ways succeeded) to fight Intel on its own ground and its release of a 64-bit x86 chip back in 2003 really was a coup and a boost for the company. However since then, AMD hasn’t managed to pull off another game changing maneuver and Intel is still king. But AMD’s recent agreement with ARM could change all of that.
In a recent interview Krisztian Flautner, the head of ARM’s R&D, pointed out that even though the company doesn’t own or run any chip fabrication plants there are more 32-bit chips using the ARM architecture than Intel’s x86 design. The way ARM has managed this is that it licences the design for CPU cores to other companies, including Samsung, Qualcomm and Apple, who in turn physically make the chips for sale or for use in their own devices.
This now means that, on a global scale, Intel isn’t competing just with AMD, or just with ARM or just with Samsung. Now Intel is competing with all the big technology companies including Apple, Texas Instruments, nVIDIA, Samsung and AMD. “It is really about the business model, and less about the product,” said Flautner to TechWeekEurope. “We are enabling a broad set of people to compete with Intel, and they are not really used to that.”
In the mobile space the game has basically been won. An ARM architecture based chip is used in almost every mobile device. Although there are some Intel powered Android devices and there are even a few MIPS based tablets, ARM reigns supreme. But ARM isn’t happy to stop there, it also wants to dominate the data center market!
In a data center heat and electricity are the two biggest factors. If you have thousands upon thousands of servers pumping out heat and consuming electricity, even the smallest decrease in power usage can produce big financial savings. Just take a look at the pictures of Google’s data center and think of the electricity bill. The advantage of ARM chips is that they use much less power than standard server chips and produce less heat. By working with AMD, who is the world’s second largest server processor maker, ARM hopes to make in roads into the data center market.
ARM is pleased to have partnered with AMD as it strengthens ARM in the server and high-availability markets, sectors which historically ARM hasn’t penetrated. ARM doesn’t see the existing reliance on the x86 architecture as a problem. As Flautner points out data centers are already “quite heterogeneous, and there are lots of different server requirements and use cases.”
AMD’s deal with ARM makes it the only server processor maker that can bridge the gap between the x86 and 64-bit ARM ecosystems. AMD plans to market the ARM server chips under its existing Opteron brand with the first model expected to appear in 2014.