ARMed and Ready For Action

6/14/2012 4:28:43 PM

If you have an iPad, iPhone, a Galaxy Tab or pretty much any other mobile device today, it's very likely it's powered by a chip from ARM. Now the company is eager for a much bigger slice of the Computing pie.


The ARM 1 CPU in an Acorn ARM Evaluation System

The first ARM processor was born from the design efforts for the Acorn Archimedes personal computer. Like its predecessor the BBC Micro, also made by Acorn Computers, the Archimedes found a niche for itself in the education market in the UK. That niche switched over to more capable and more widespread Apple and IBM-compatible computers as the 1980's ended, leaving Acorn Computers and its processor design high and dry. Fortunately, Apple and a few other investors joined with Acorn to establish Advanced RISC Machines or ARM to further promote the technology, with Apple even using it for its groundbreaking Newton personal digital assistant.

ARM is a chip company that doesn't make chips. It designs instruction set architectures, processors and GPU cores for a variety of applications and licenses them to other companies which can manufacture those designs or modify them further. Unlike in the desktop arena, its chips don't get much attention by the general public. Companies like Apple, Samsung, NVIDIA and Tl license ARM processor cores such as the Cortex A8 and Cortex A9 and integrate them into their own designs for the systems-on-chip (SoC) that run on tablets and smartphones, combining those cores with their own imaging and signal processors, memory and network controllers and wireless radios.

Description: ARMv7


Others like Qualcomm license a particular instruction set architecture such as ARMv7 and design their own processors like the Snapdragon that are compatible with it. The beauty of licensing is that applications that target one instruction set and processor family are broadly compatible with similar licensed SoCs - witness the number of Android devices running on cheap-as-chips Rockchips processors to the top of the line Samsung Exynos. If you wrote something for a Cortex A9, chances are it would also work with an A9-based chip from another manufacturer.

The hallmark of ARM cores has been power efficiency because of its small instruction set and reduced transistor count. The latest smartphones sport dual-core, even quad-core processors running at over 1 GHz yet can run for hours on batteries. For example, NVIDIA's Tegra 3 SoC combines four A9 cores with a hidden, low power A7 core and a GPU core in just a few square millimeters - the big quads are activated when a complex web page needs to be rendered or a game is running, but for common system tasks they're turned off and the tiny A7 takes over while sipping electrons. For watching high-resolution videos, the GPU itself can handle all the decoding while the rest of the system is shut down. The ability to run at full speed without a heatsink and fan while consuming just one to two watts makes SoCs like these invaluable, sandwiched in the tiny spaces in today's thin mobile devices.

The combination of low power and high performance are making ARM processors look attractive outside the mobile industry too. For server farms, computers that sit around without doing any work cost money in terms of electricity and cooling, so having an army of slower, more frugal processors continuously crunching on distributed tasks like web serving or database processing (the typical Linux/Apache/MySQL/Python LAMP stack) can make economic sense against speedy processors that consume twenty times more power at idle.

Description: the Armada XP

The Armada XP

ARM SoCs for servers such as the Marvell Armada include memory, PCI-E and SATA bus and Ethernet network controllers on the processor, saving even more power compared to discrete components on typical server motherboards. The existing 32-bit architecture might be good enough for phones but it's not enough for servers that handle lots more memory, hence the introduction of the new ARMv8 64-bit architecture. ARM itself hasn't finished designing a 64-bit core but its partner Applied Micro has - the X-gene SoC is supposed to idle at a tiny 300mW, run at full power at 2W per core and includes such server goodies as hardware virtualisation and ECC memory support.

Of course, this also means ARM SoCs can go into laptops. Imagine one that can comfortably run common applications like Web browsers and office suites while lasting an entire day on battery power... not so farfetched when anorexic tablets already surpass the ten-hour mark, but that's with lean mobile operating systems optimised for low power consumption. I wouldn't mind trading pure processing power - which is rarely used anyway - for sheer longevity. Ubuntu Linux has an ARM version for testing and the upcoming Windows 8 supports an ARM tablet variant, so we could be seeing netbooks or even laptops running desktop-grade operating systems on ARM by the end of the year.

I can't wait to get one under my, well, arm.

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