Most of Nvidia's press conference at CES was devoted to its Tegra 2 processor for smartphones and tablets, as expected. But CEO Jen-Hsun Huang saved one big surprise for the end, a project to develop what he called the first high-performance CPU for PCs and servers based on the ARM instruction set.
Nvidia didn't provide many details but Huang described Project Denver as an effort to build a new CPU from the ground up, which suggests that the comp any has an architectural license from ARM to build a CPU from scratch. Other companies develop ARM-based chips this way--Qualcomm designed its Snapdragon application processor from scratch, for example--but most chips including Tegra 2 are built on existing ARM cores such as the Cortex-A9 MPCore in order to get to marker more quickly and at lower cost.
There have rumors on and off for years that Nvidia was developing its own x86 CPU to compete with AMD and Intel. With this move, Nvidia seems to betting that the ARM ecosystem--the tools, compilers and applications already widely used in mobile and embedded devices--will gradually take over the rest of the computing world as well.
"The energy around the ARM architecture is now absolutely enormous," Huang said. "This is Nvidia's first CPU development. And the world's first ARM processor targeted at high performance computing."
It is an ambitious strategy, but it faces some big challenges. First, while ARM processors have been growing significantly more powerful, they still can't touch the fastest x86 processors. Second, many of the client and server applications used by organizations and individuals would need to be rewritten to run on ARM-based computers.
A number of major operating systems including Apple's iOS, Google's Android, RIM's BlackBerry and Windows CE already run on ARM-based processors, but there's one big omission: the full version of Windows. Huang noted that there are rumors that Microsoft could announce that Windows 8 will support ARM, as well as x86, as soon as today. If that does happen, it would go a long way towards validating Nvidia's strategy.
[Update: Microsoft has confirmed that the "next version of Windows" will run on ARM and demonstrated an early build of Windows 8 running on ARM-based chips from Nvidia, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments.]
But at this early stage, there are still a lot more questions than answers on Nvidia's Project Denver.