The Secret Processor Revolution (Part 3)

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It’s not common practice in business for one company to publicly bad-mouth a rival. Instead, more subtle methods are used to sway public opinion. When a company does start slinging mud, it’s usually because it’s concerned a rival may be in with a chance of stealing significant market share.

Intel’s chief executive officer Paul Otellini is certainly showing signs of panic. In recent months he’s publicly derided ARM, telling technology news site AllThingsD in an interview that the Cambridge-based company was likely to go the way of Transmeta, a low-power chip start-up that attempted to compete with Intel and failed before closing in 2009. This echoes comments Otellini made during an analysts’ meeting in May 2010, in which he claimed ARM’s successful licensing method was something Intel had tried and abandoned years prior. “The architecture which is the most popular on earth is getting more popular every day,” he claimed at the time, referring to the x86 architecture and its 64-bit variant as used by Intel’s own processors.

Handson with Microsoft Surface for Windows RT

Handson with Microsoft Surface for Windows RT

It’s not just ARM that has Otellini’s back up either. Microsoft’s decision to produce Windows RT, a cut-down version of its Windows 8 operating system designed specifically for the ARM architecture, has been met with some choice words. “There has been a lot of debate that [Windows RT] is going to be a real entry for the ARM camp into Windows for the first time,” Otellini told investors in May, prior to the launch of Windows RT on Microsoft’s Surface tablet family. “While at face value that’s true, I think they [ARM licensees] have a big uphill fight,” he added, making reference to ARM’s inability to run existing software packages designed for the x86 instruction set.

“Intel’s chief executive officer Paul Otellini is certainly showing signs of panic”

Behind closed doors, Otellini isn’t pleased with Microsoft’s apparent decision to end the hitherto happy Wintel partnership by partnering with ARM. Details of an internal meeting leaked to Bloomberg in September had Otellini telling staff that Windows 8, Microsoft’s recently launched next-generation operating system, was riddled with bugs and simply not ready for launch. While Intel has described the reports of Otellini’s comments as “unsubstantiated”,. it has somewhat tellingly refused to issue an outright denial that the comments were made.

The more Otellini speaks out about ARM’s deficiencies and his own company’s comfortable position, the more the industry wonders if he isn’t protesting a little too much.

From The Server To The Desktop

Low-power chips for the data center are one thing, but consumers are interested in desktops and laptops. Typically, technologies originally developed for the server market trickle down to the consumer over time, like AMD’s Bulldozer processor design, which first appeared in the company’s server-oriented Opterons before being released in its FX and A-series chips for desktops and laptops. With the first high-profile ARM server launches still two years away, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it will be years before the ARM architecture makes inroads into the desktop and laptop market, but you’d be wrong.

Samsung Exynos

Samsung Exynos

In October Google announced a continuation of its hardware partnership with Samsung with the launch of a new ultra-portable 11” laptop based on the Chrome OS cloud-based operating system. Dubbed, as with previous generations, a Chromebook, the device offers long battery life, built-in Google branded applications and access to the internet. It also runs an ARM processor, a Samsung Exynos 5 dual-core chip based on the ARMv7-A Cortex-A15 design, rather than the Intel Atom found in the original Chromebook devices. Far from being a prediction for the future, the Samsung Chromebook is available now for $367 and it’s selling well enough for stocks to be running low.

Interest in the ARM architecture has never been higher in the engineering and programming communities either. The success of the Raspberry Pi, an ARM-based, credit card-sized development board sold in the UK for just $48 and featuring functionality - if not performance - to rival the average desktop, has been phenomenal, with sales throughout the world surpassing every expectation. Seeing an opportunity, others are entering the market including low power x86 processor specialist VIA, which recently launched the APC8750. A single-board computer based on an 800MHz ARM processor, the APC uses a ‘neo-ITX’ form factor, which allows it to fit into any ITX, mATX or ATX case, making it one of the first true ARM desktops of the new generation.

Raspberry Pi

Raspberry Pi

Software Support

The main issue with ARM-based systems is, as Intel’s Otellini has explained at length, a lack of support for ‘legacy’ software. The monopoly held by x86 and x86-64 in the desktop and laptop markets (with the last non-x86 hold-out, Apple, having made the move to Intel processors in 2006) means that there are hundreds of thousands of applications, from productivity suites to games, which are designed specifically for that architecture. Even if the operating system itself is ported to ARM, as with Microsoft’s Windows RT, the applications will also need to be rewritten.

For some platforms, that’s not an issue. Many Linux distributions have ARM ports already and typically include a repository of open-source software compiled for the architecture. Using the ARM port of Debian Linux, for example, provides access to the popular productivity suite LibreOffice, the Firefox web browser, and the GIMP image editor, all of which look and feel exactly the same as their x86 equivalents.

For closed-source software, however, it’s up to the manufacturers to support ARM, and until the platform reaches a critical mass with their target audiences, it’s unlikely that they’ll want to invest the time and effort to do so.

That said, the software industry has a precedent for such a move: the shift from the PowerPC architecture to x86 made by Apple in 2006. The company knew that, while it had already ported its OS X operating system to the x86 architecture, the software its customers relied on - software like Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator - was incompatible. Apple wanted to launch the new systems as soon as possible, and couldn’t wait for Adobe and others to port their applications across. Instead, it hired a software development company to produce Rosetta, an emulation layer that allowed applications written for the PowerPC architecture to run on the new x86 processors.



The move was a success: all Apple laptops and desktops are now based on Intel x86 processors, and when OS X 10.7 Lion removed the Rosetta support from the operating system, ending its ability to run legacy PowerPC applications, there was little complaint from users, with the overwhelming majority of software having been successfully ported to native x86 code in the intervening five years.

Bridging The Gap

Apple had an advantage in the development of Rosetta, however: it was going from relatively low-power RISC PowerPC chips to high-power CISC x86 chips. Is it possible for a RISC ARM processor to successfully emulate a CISC x86 chip in a similar way? The Russian company Elbrus Technologies certainly thinks so. The company is currently working on an emulation layer that will allow ARM-based computers to run native x86 code, claiming that it will have software ready to launch by 2014 that can run x86 code at around 80% efficiency on ARM processors.

It’s a move with history behind it: when Acorn’s RISC PCs were losing the battle for the desktop, the company developed a ‘PC Emulator’, which allowed it to run Microsoft’s MS-DOS operating system and x86 applications. While slow, it allowed those who had already invested in RISC PC systems access to additional software without having to buy a new computer, and it helped stave off the demise of the platform for a few more years.

With Intel looking to fight ARM in the mobile market and ARM poised to attack Intel in the data center and on the desktop, the secret processor revolution is upon us. And it’s unlikely to stay secret for much longer.

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