The Secret Processor Revolution (Part 2)

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The secret of ARM’s success lies in its instruction set architecture, or ISA. Based on the concept of reduced instruction set computing (RISC), ARM’s processors are significantly simpler than the complex instruction set computing (CISC) products of its rivals. Where a modern Intel processor may have between 700 million and 2.6 billion transistors, ARM’s designs have a small fraction of that number. NVidia’s dual-core Tegra 2 design, for example, has around 260 million transistors, including those required for graphics processing and other tasks usually carried out by discrete chips. Fewer transistors mean the chips are cheaper to manufacture, take up less room in a system and draw less power - all key features for the highly competitive mobile market.

“ARM isn’t happy with just its domination of the mobile market, however”

For years, RISC processor designs struggled to win market share against their CISC counterparts. The concept of a chip with far simpler instructions that would execute faster was alien to many programmers, who were used to the CISC way of doing things. It wasn’t until mobile devices started to become popular that RISC would find a niche.

ARM isn’t happy with just its domination of the mobile market, however. The company clearly remembers its origins on desks up and down the country in the glory days of the microcomputer revolution, and it won’t be satisfied until it’s back in its rightful place.

Dell ARM server

Dell ARM server

Attacking The Data Center

A massively profitable area for Intel is the data center, the buildings filled with servers that power modern life, providing resources for everything from internet banking to online gaming. Every major site you visit on the web is hosted in a data center, with larger sites like Facebook having several dedicated buildings for this purpose. Although Intel has some rivals in the data center market, including AMD, it holds a majority share estimated at almost 95%, which is higher even than its dominance in the laptop and desktop markets.

In short, it’s a market in which Intel feels comfortable at least, until ARM started making waves.

ARM’s latest design, the ARMv8-A architecture, powers the company’s new Cortex-A50 family of processors. On the surface, ARM is still looking towards the mobile market, but dig deeper and its true intentions become clear: it’s taking on Intel in the data center.

The ARMv8 architecture adds a variety of enhancements that make little sense in a mobile device but are near-requirements in the data center. As with its predecessor, the ARMv7-A architecture, ARMv8 includes cryptographic acceleration, hardware virtualization extensions used by server-oriented platforms like VMware’s ESX, and for the first time comes in a true 64-bit implementation.

AMD Opteron

AMD Opteron

The latter is the most important: server CPUs have used a 64-bit address space for years, allowing them to access large quantities of memory and work on larger data chunks in a single cycle. Previous ARM architectures have been exclusively 32-bit, with the ARMv7a Cortex-A15 adding support for ‘virtual addressing’ to access more than 4GB of memory for the first time.

The ARMv8 architecture, the biggest architecture change in the company’s history, is able to access several terabytes (thousands of gigabytes) of memory. That’s a feature mobile phones, which today come with a maximum of 2GB of memory, simply don’t need. Combined with CoreLink, a fabric interconnects designed to allow hundreds of processor cores to communicate efficiently, ARM finally has what it needs.

The jump to a 64-bit architecture means an assault on the data center, and it’s a move that has Intel worried. With the growth of cloud computing (servers that provide thousands of clients with storage or processing), interest is rising in many-core, low-power servers, and that’s a market Intel has been ignoring for far too long.

ARM Servers

There have been small-scale trials of ARM-based servers in the past, with HP’s Project Moonshot originally aiming to use ARM chips before choosing Intel’s Atom processors and Dell announcing the Copper 48-core ARMv7 server product for limited roll-out earlier this year. Efforts have been hampered by a lack of true 64-bit parts, however - an issue that ARMv8 has now solved.

As a result, increasing numbers of companies are coming forward to partner with ARM on server products. AMD, a long-time rival of Intel’s, has recently announced that it will be launching ARMv8-based server processors under its Opteron brand in 2014, following a top-secret partnership with ARM formed last year. Rumours have even suggested that graphics giant NVidia is considering adding ARMv8 cores to its Tesla high-performance parallel processing platform to increase its flexibility.

Dell ARM server

Dell ARM server

It’s not just hardware companies that are looking into ARM, either. Clearly recognizing that software support is key, several companies have announced projects to port common server applications to the ARM architecture. The Linaro Enterprise Group, a non-profit organization, has recently welcomed new members from Linux vendors Canonical and Red Hat along with social networking giant Facebook, one of the biggest consumers of data center hardware in the world, while other software companies including opens USE have announced their own ARM porting efforts.

Software is key to a platform’s success. Intel is struggling to convince companies to use its x86 architecture in mobile, where software is optimized for the ARM architecture, and ARM is going to have the same struggle getting its chips into the server market. With companies like Red Hat, Canonical and Facebook onside, however, the problem is far from insurmountable.

By 2015, it’s likely that numerous off-the-shelf ARM-based servers will be available from a variety of companies, with a software ecosystem that means they will be drop-in replacements for x86-based servers in a large number of cases. These servers will appeal to the cloud computing market, where the ability to run numerous low-complexity processing threads simultaneously is valued far above the ability to run a small number of high-complexity processing threads - something at which Intel processors traditionally excel.

With ARM chips offering the potential for greater density (the number of processing cores you can fit in a given space) and significantly reduced power intake and heat output, rapid growth in the server market is likely.

That’s a scenario which could prove bad news for Intel.

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