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The giant of Cambridgeshire (Part 4) - Processor and cores

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Processor and cores

Description: The ARM Cortex-based Exynos 4210 from Samsung provides most of the functionality of a smartphone in a single chip

The ARM Cortex-based Exynos 4210 from Samsung provides most of the functionality of a smartphone in a single chip

 

To most technically-minded PC users, a processor is the large component that sits on the motherboard, and which forms the heart of the PC. A core, on the other hand, of which there might be two, four, six or eight, is a part of a processor that’s responsible for executing instructions. Within ARM, though, the two terms have a somewhat different meaning.

A processor is pretty much what most people would expect - a design containing all the usual elements, including one or more cores, cache memories and the bus interface. As such, it’s a design that a semiconductor manufacturer can turn directly into a standard silicon component. So, for example, several companies including Toshiba, NEC and TI have ARM Cortex-A9 processors.

A core, on the other hand, is the heart of a microprocessor that semiconductor manufacturers can build into their own custom chip designs. That customised chip will often be much more than what most people would think of as a processor, and could provide a significant proportion of the functionality required in a particular device. Referred to as a system on silicon (SoC) design, this type of chip minimises the number of components, which, in turn, keeps down both the cost and the size of the circuit hoard, both of which are essential for high volume portable products such as smartphones.

A perfect example of the increasing amount of functionality that’s being shoehorned into a single chip is the Samsung Exynos 4210 SoC. Intended for smartphones, tablet PCs and netbooks, the chip features a 1.2GHz dual-core ARM Cortex-A9, plus just about everything that would be found as separate chips on the motherboard on a conventional PC. For example, there’s on-chip 3D graphics and audio hardware, lO8Op video encode and decode, plus interfaces for the display camera and keypad. There are also memory, USB, PCI Express (expansion card), SATA (hard disk) and memory card interfaces and, while the necessary RF (radio frequency circuitry would have to be provided by a separate chip, there’s support for the various communication channels including Wi-Fi, HSPA+ and LTE (3G and 4G mobile phone) and GPS.

Applications

 

Description:                    According to ARM,. the Mali-T658 GPU will bring desktop class graphics to mobile devices

According to ARM,. the Mali-T658 GPU will bring desktop class graphics to mobile devices

 

We’ve seen that ARM processors and cores are used in handheld anti portable devices like smartphones, tablet PCs and netbooks, but this is only the tip of the iceberg. As Ed Plowan put it, “You can walk around any branch of stores like Comet or Curry and he falling over ARM devices, but you won’t know it”. Included here are the likes of games consoles, personal media players, set-top boxes, Internet radios, home automation systems, GPS receivers, chook readers, TVs, DVD and Blu-ray players, digital cameras and home media servers. Cheaper, less powerful chips arc found in less likely sounding home products, including toys, cordless phones and even coffee makers. There’s a good chance that your car could contain a fair few ARM-based devices too. They’re used to drive dashboard display, anti-lock breaking, airbags and other safety-related systems, and for engine management. Ed also mentioned healthcare products as a major growth area over the last five years, with products varying from remote patient monitoring systems to medical imaging scanners.

While your desktop or laptop PC wont feature an ARM chip as its main processor, there’s a good chance that there’ll be one or more hidden away somewhere doing some unexpected but important job. ARM devices are used extensively in hard disk and solid state drives. They also crop up in wireless keyboards, and are used as the driving force behind printers and networking devices like wireless router/access points.

Before you jump to the conclusion that ARM products are destined to play a supporting role in traditional computing platforms indefinitel3 we really ought to mention the EU Mont-Blanc Project. With the aim of providing high performance computing but without the high energy consumption of today’s top supercomputers, project partner the Barcelona Computing Centre is building a supercomputer from ARM-based Nvidia Tegra processors. As yet there’s no indication of how many thousand of these chips will be used and what level of performance will be achieved, but this first ARM-based supercomputer will certainly break new ground in terms of energy efficiency While the initial goal is to provide two to five times the efficiency of x64-based supercomputers, this is expected to increase to as much as 10 times by 2014 and the ultimate project aim is a 10-30 fold improvement.

The future of ARM

Description: A HP’s ARM-based Redstone server modules will increase data centre power efficiency, with processors produced by Calxeda

A HP’s ARM-based Redstone server modules will increase data centre power efficiency, with processors produced by Calxeda

 

The ARM architecture started out in a desktop PC, and a powerful one at that. Now, after years of being hidden away in a whole manner of consumer and industrial products, it has returned to the world of computing by powering the latest generation of portable platforms. So will ARM products once again power mainstream computers? I put that question to Ed Plowman, who questioned our use of the term “mainstream” and turned the question on its head by referring to the evolution of computing devices. “First there was the desktop, and then the laptop, but the laptop was hindered by the hick of connectivity”, he said. “All of this functionality plus connectivity can now be provided in a device that’s always with us, but there’s a limit to what you can do with a smartphone, which is why the tablet was developed. It would be wrong to think of a tablet as just a bigger phone, though; it provides a different way of presenting data and a different user experience. So ARM isn’t moving into the mainstream but the mainstream is evolving to play into ARM’s strengths such as low power consumption.

However we might define the mainstream, there seems to be little doubt that ARM devices are being called on to perform ever more processor-intensive tasks. The fact that this has been achieved with a 32-bit architecture when most of the competition at the top end has migrated to 64 bits is a testimony to the ARM architecture, but surely’ there’s a limit to how far 32-bit technology can be stretched. At ARM’s TechCon conference in Santa Barbara in October last year, Ed mentioned the company’s forthcoming ARMv8 architecture, which will be 64-bit throughout. He wasn’t prepared to say when 64-bit designs will become available, but Ed was enthusiastic about what it will offer. Availability of a 64-bit ARM core takes us into interesting areas. People think it’s predominantly about taking us into an Intel-type world, but there are lots of other advantages, not least of which is the scope for vastly increasing use of memory.”

Indeed, coping with huge volumes of data brings us to another new application for ARM devices as evidenced by the recent announcement by HP of the Redstone server. This new product line uses ARM Cortex-based processors produced by start-up company Calxeda. However, Ed Plowman took issue with the suggestion that ARM’S entry into the large scale server market was a radical change of direction.

“People think that servers are all about high performance, but most applications arc data centres where the main requirement is energy efficiency”, he said. “Electrical power is needed both to run the hardware and for cooling, and this cost overrides the equipment cost. With the continual requirement for larger and larger data centres, the number of MIPS per unit area and power efficiency are becoming increasingly important”. It’s interesting to note, therefore, that an aim of HP’s Project Moonshot, of which the ARM-based Redstone server is a first element, is to consume 89 per cent less energy and 94 per cent less space, while reducing overall costs up to 63 per cent compared to traditional server systems.

ARM might be best known for its microprocessors and cores, but GPUs are becoming an increasingly important part of their portfolio with their newly announced MaIi-T658 representing the state of the art. Needless to say this new product follows in the ARM niche of low power consumption for handheld and portable devices, without sacrificing performance. Indeed, a recent press release refers to desktop-class graphics on mobile devices, and Ed went on to make the tantalising suggestion that it would allow mobile phones to be driven via a gesture interface.

Whether we’ll ever see a desktop PC proudly displaying an “ARM Inside” badge remains to be seen, and unless it does the company will probably never become a household name. Yet ARM Holdings appears in the FTSE 100 list of the UK’s most influential companies, employs 1,700 people, turns over more than $640 million, and demonstrates that a British company can compete with the best that Silicon Valley has to offer. With pundits continually talking down the British economy, perhaps you’ll forgive us relishing in this success story for the British computer industry.

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