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AMD and Intel reveal the direction of CPU development


Published onJune 21, 2012

The humble central processing unit (CPU) has been powering our computing devices for decades and the changes and innovations seen over the years have been nothing but astounding. But the big CPU companies aren’t resting on their laurels. Recently AMD and Intel have made announcements which give us a tantalizing taste of what could be to come. First up, AMD has announced that it will start including ARM Cortex-A5 CPUs inside of its x86 APUs (Accelerated Processing Units). AMD coined the term APU for a single piece of silicon – known as system-on-a-chip (SoC) – which contain more than just a CPU. The current AMD APUs contain an x86-based CPU plus an integrated GPU. Now from 2013 those same APUs will include an ARM CPU. The ARM Cortex CPU is being added, not as a general purpose processing unit, but in order to support advanced security functions.

By including the ARM CPU, AMD can integrate ARM’s TrustZone technology – the world’s most broadly-adopted mobile security ecosystem. The TrustZone  technology is currently used in a large number of applications including secure payment, digital rights management (DRM), enterprise and web-based services.

“As technology becomes more important to our everyday lives, security needs to be present in every single device. The challenge that the industry faces is how to make this a reality,” said Ian Drew, executive vice president, strategy, ARM.

Also the inclusion of the ARM CPU for security purposes is only just the start. AMD have also announced that it is to be a founding member of the Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation along with ARM, Imagination Technologies, MediaTek Inc., and Texas Instruments (TI). The Foundation aims to define and promote an open, standards-based approach to heterogeneous computing. The idea being to create a simple programming model which allows developers to tap into the different capabilities found in modern CPUs, GPUs and APUs.

What have Intel been up to?

While AMD and ARM have been forging alliances, Intel has been talking about the brain, more specifically about  neuromorphic  chip designs that use lateral spin valves (LSV) and memristors to create massively parallel processing units that sift through data in a similar way as our brains do. The idea is that the combination of LSVs and memristors can mimic the synapse and neurons of our brain and introduce a whole new realm of computing. The other advantage of this approach is a dramatic decrease in power consumption. Intel’s researchers reckon that neuromorphic designs can achieve 15X-300X lower computation energy compared to state of art CMOS designs.

But don’t hold your breath, Intel’s plans are just research papers at the moment. Someday we may see these, but for now they are relegated to imaginative plans.