Inside ARM: The British success story taking the chip world by storm

Inside ARM: The British success story taking the chip world by storm

Summary: A look inside the British chip designer, from its origins in a Cambridge barn to its current champagne-marked successes and a future where M2M is key.

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...smartphone and laptop chips that can run all day without draining batteries, while the growth of cloud services is pushing datacentre operators to seek new ways to reduce the electricity bills that swallow so much of their budgets.

As ARM's ambitions expand, the company finds itself encroaching on territory dominated by Intel, including the Windows PC and server market. This year saw Microsoft Windows and Office running on an ARM-based system for the first time, with the release of Microsoft Surface RT tablet.

ARM's Mike Muller
ARM CTO and co-founder Mike Muller. Image: ARM

And within the next couple of years ARM will enter the server space in earnest, with the first AMD Opteron servers based on 64-bit ARM designs due out in 2014.

Despite the server market being uncharted territory for ARM, Muller believes the time is right for the company to make its move.

The rise of people accessing software and services over the internet plays to the low-power strengths of ARM's Risc architecture, says Muller. Running these services doesn't demand chips with a surfeit of raw processing power, but rather a datacentre where processing power can be scaled rapidly to meet peaks in demand.

Of course Intel x86-based chips can scale, but if a task doesn't rely on individual processor performance, then the lower power consumption of the ARM architecture could start to look attractive to cloud service providers wanting to reduce energy bills. HP and ARM-backed server chip start-up Calxeda estimates it can produce a server at about 35 percent of the cost and 10 percent of the energy consumption of a conventional server.

"In a web-based service deployment it's about scalability," says Muller. "That opens up the prospect of 'Why don't you build those server farms out of more power-efficient components?'"

ARM doesn't expect to become a major player in the server market overnight, nor does it initially envisage itself challenging Intel in areas served by its high-performance Xeon processors. But by targeting web services ARM is going after business with some of the biggest names in tech – Facebook, Google and Amazon – not to mention the rapidly growing web services market. Facebook is already running large-scale tests using ARM and other chipsets.

"Initially we will be targeting those scale-out web workloads. The bit we're going after is the area where there's lots of volume and growth," said Muller.

In targeting the web services market, ARM is acknowledging the performance limits of its chips, which toe-to-toe can't match the processing power of the likes of Intel's Xeon processors. Sergis Mushell, principal research analyst with Gartner's technology and service provider research group, thinks ARM's server chips will be suited to what he calls the microserver market — servers used to perform tasks like web hosting and streaming video, which are I/O intensive but require low levels of processing. The microserver market accounts for about 10 to 15 percent of the nine to 10 million servers sold annually, he said.

However, incompatibility with legacy software will limit the market for ARM-based servers within large enterprise and government, Mushell says.

"You still have governments seeking software engineers for punch cards. Things linger on in corporations and governments for a long time. You do not rip and replace things just because they're more efficient."

"Things linger on in corporations and governments for a long time. You do not rip and replace things just because they're more efficient" — Sergis Mushell, Gartner

Mushell sees more of a market for ARM servers among large web companies like Google and Facebook but said there would still be the burden of managing x86 servers alongside ARM servers, and retaining the skills and parts necessary to run both.

The convenience of having a general-purpose, all be it more power hungry, Intel x86 server, which the company already has the skills and equipment to maintain shouldn't be underestimated, he says.

"X86 architecture, while it's not the most efficient architecture in the world, it's like the one wrench you can have in your toolbox that can do everything. Most people don't use a steak knife, a bread knife, a butter knife — they just want a good sharp knife in the kitchen," he said.

"It is not to say that ARM will not find application and usages. I think the opportunities are there for ARM to compete very aggressively with Intel. It is to say the world will not change over in a heartbeat."

Datacentre market

Alongside servers, the datacentre market also provides an opportunity for ARM and its partners to sell chips for storage and networking. ARM has already made inroads into networking, persuading semiconductor manufacturers that sell into the networking market — the likes of Freescale and LSI — to switch to ARM-based chips from competitors.

"ARM will find a home within the datacentre no doubt. The question is where the server is going to be," says Mushell.

ARM's Muller sees its contesting of the server market as a case of 'slow and steady wins the race'.

"We started work on servers four to five years ago. People thought 'Why? What's the point? You're wasting your time'. Product is starting to appear now. Give us another year or two and it will start to take off."

Breaking into the server market won't be easy for ARM. The incumbents have an advantage in that customers are already set up to use existing x86 architectures. But for the likes of web services companies, where datacentre costs swallow up large proportions of operating budgets, Muller believes the trials of transition will be offset by the lower running costs.

"If you can say 'I can make your datacentres 10, 20, 30 percent more power efficient, that really matters to their running costs. Therefore it's worth them putting in investment to go through whatever pain there is," he said.

How ARM designs a chip

Arm Main Building
The main building at ARM's Cambridge headquarters. Image: Nick Heath / ZDNet

The process of designing a chip begins with ARM consulting its customer base on what capabilities and features – the likes of media performance extensions or hardware-level security support — they want to see in future chips.

Using the list as a guide, ARM then defines and locks down the instructions that the chip will be capable of executing. The next step is defining the processor pipeline, the various stages of operation that a processor goes through when executing instructions, which is constrained by factors like the available power and the silicon die area.

Electronic design automation tools then take these higher-level processor designs and translate them into the required arrangement of logic gates within the processor core. Designers then go in and refine the arrangement of logic gates to perfect the design.

Third parties will then license that design, which in general will be a circuit description that sets out how data flows between registers on the chip, and incorporate it into designs for their own chips.

The Intel fightback

The perception might be that, as ARN encroaches into what has been x86 territory, the big boys are just sitting still while it attempts to eat their lunch. But it's by no means a one-way street.

Intel is mounting its own counteroffensive into ARM's home territory of mobile...

Topics: ARM, Data Centers, Hardware, Intel, Mobility, Processors, Servers, United Kingdom

About

Nick Heath is chief reporter for TechRepublic UK. He writes about the technology that IT-decision makers need to know about, and the latest happenings in the European tech scene.

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12 comments
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  • re Inside Arm:

    Thank you Nick for an article worth reading. A rare event these days on this site.
    Saxwulf
  • Nice Article

    A very good insight on how the processor company is able to compete(and successfully too!) with one of the most entrenched chip technologies (x86) in the personal computing space. I do think both the chip paradigms have their place in the technology field but ARM has more headroom to grow in this sector in near term.
    ramdasviky
  • Intel Lacks Economies Of Scale

    In terms of relative volumes, x86 is a drop in the bucket compared to ARM. And with only one-and-a-fraction companies making x86 chips, versus several dozen making ARM ones, you can see how the latter benefits from a competitive marketplace that simply doesn't exist for the former. Intel still works on the basis of preventing Atom chips from cannibalizing sales of more lucrative Core chips, by tight restrictions on the categories of products you can make with each chip family, while ARM is a complete free-for-all, where you are free to imagine the product first, then look for one or more suitable chip suppliers.

    Or, to put it another way, an x86-based mobile market could never have been as vibrant as the ARM-based one has turned out.
    ldo17
  • Let's make things smarter

    Number of connected devices in 2020 will be over 20 billion... future is looking bright for ARM and embedded software. Tass all folks
    Tim Beckers
  • A nice little British success story

    Nice to see that we (UK) can still be relevant in the modern computing arena.
    The prospect of machine to machine comms interactions really sound exciting.
    JulesVerny
  • If recent news is anything to go by

    Intel is shooting itself deliberately in the foot by seriously contemplating BGA boards as a rule.

    Did i read correctly (..somewhere) that ARM is in talks with AMD over a new line of processors for AMD? Someone .. anyone?
    thx-1138_
  • Intel has pockets full of money

    And that might kill ARM. When eventually Intel has a CPU similar to ARM CPUs in its portfolio it can easily pay potential customers money for "advertising" their CPU (like the infamous "Intel inside" logo).
    EnticingHavoc
  • Inside ARM: The British success story taking the chip world by storm

    @EnticingHavoc
    sun had tons of money, the company could even afford to buy apple (but decided not to) and even bigger companies during its heydays. and it had the most awesome processor that were way way ahead of intel. but where is sun now? intel should continue its arm-twisting marketing if it wants to see itself relevant in the future. otherwise, no amount of money can save it from losing ground to the competition ...
    kc63092@...
  • Nice story

    The good thing about ARM is that it doesn't own everything. It doesn't own the fabrication plants. ARM allows others to make money on the processors. The licensing model makes it more attractive.

    That was a good read. Thanks, Nick.
    Vbitrate
  • One huge BLOB

    The chip design industry is an amalgamated blob of tech corporations who swap patents among each other or else take up equity ownership stakes. "I'll buy x million non-voting shares of your company to settle the y patent infringement complaint"....
    anthonymaw
  • One success that is probably a lynchpin wasnt mentioned

    Psion...

    Without their little handhelds, there would never have been Symbian, which drove the initial 'smart' mobile revolution.

    Symbian is the evolution of Epoch, which was what ran on the early Psions. Without an ARM processor, we'd still be using monolithic phones with a hardware OS that only made phonecalls and sent basic SMS messages like they used to... ARM have actually been quietly revolutionising the microprocessor industry for decades.
    SiO2
  • ARM - I remember its early days at Acorn

    I heard about a presentation of a new chip through the grapevine while working for Sinclair in Cambridge. I attended and was astonished by the elegance of the design and instruction set. I immediately wrote to Acorn asking for a job working on the ARM (which then stood for Acorn Risc Machine). Acorn took me on and I wrote a machine code monitor for initial testing of the first Archimedes circuit boards. I have always been a fan of the ARM design and am delighted that it has proved such a success. All too often technical excellence doesn't win the day but ARM obviously had the right approach and did win the day. There's room for more than one chip designer and I understand Intel's envy of ARM's success in the mobile world. Even if Intel does manage to beat ARM in the MIPS per watt stakes, ARM will have made a huge contribution to reducing energy consumption and forcing its competitiors to go the same route. Well done ARM and more power to your elbow (is an ELBOW something within an ARM?).
    JohnOfStony