AMD links up with ARM in system-on-a-chip mission

In a move to break into mobile devices, the chipmaker has teamed up with ARM and other key mobile tech players — but not Intel — to set up a consortium to develop a common hardware standard for system-on-a-chip
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Chipmaker AMD has moved to break into mobile devices, by hooking up with ARM and other mobile leaders to create a common hardware specification for systems that combine CPUs and GPUs.

The Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation, which launched on Tuesday, said it will create the specification. The consortium's members include chipmaker AMD and Cambridge-based chip designer ARM, as well as mobile players Imagination Technologies, MediaTek and Texas Instruments, but not industry heavyweight Intel.

AMD Trinity

AMD is teaming up with ARM to create a common hardware standard for system-on-a-chip, such as AMD's desktop-centric Trinity chipsets. Image credit: AMD

"HSA is unlocking a new realm of possibilities across PCs, smartphones, tablets and ultra-thin notebooks, as well as the innovative supercomputers and cloud services that define the modern computing experience," HSA president Phil Rogers, an AMD corporate fellow, said in a statement.

AMD, which is established in the PC and server market, said in February that it intended to draw on the expertise of mobile chip companies in its quest to break into mobile devices. Once established, the specification will allow greater portability of code between desktop and mobile devices that adhere to its requirements.

HSA moves the industry beyond the constraints of the legacy system architecture of the past 25-plus years that is now stifling software innovations.
– Phil Rogers, HSA

"Graphical interfaces are critical to the user experience, but can have a power impact. With open standards, developers can now provide outstanding graphics without compromising power efficiency," ARM's media processor chief Jem Davies said in the statement.

Graphics processing units, or GPUs, are increasingly being used alongside CPUs to add extra parallel processing power to so-called systems-on-a-chip (SoCs). AMD's desktop-centric Trinity chipsets are a prime example of this, as are the chipsets powering many newer mobile devices.

HSA has promised to provide developers with tools, software development kits (SDKs), documentation and training, but did not give a time frame for their arrival.

Intel rivalry

Meanwhile, both AMD and ARM are locked in battle with Intel. AMD has so far focused on the same x86 architecture that Intel uses. However, ARM's more power-efficient architecture is the basis of most mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets — a sector Intel is desperate to invade. HSA co-founders Imagination, MediaTek and Texas Instruments all build products using ARM architecture.

In their statement, the companies said the foundation will improve user experiences, cloud-based data management, streaming and security. Rogers also appeared to take a shot at x86, the de facto computing architecture standard in recent decades.

"HSA moves the industry beyond the constraints of the legacy system architecture of the past 25-plus years that is now stifling software innovations," Rogers said. "By aiming HSA squarely at the needs of the software developer, we have designed a common hardware platform for high-performance, energy-efficient solutions."

According to Imagination marketing chief Tony King-Smith, the new architecture specification will support multiple types of operating system, and will use "industry standard APIs such as OpenCL, Renderscript Compute and Direct Compute", with those APIs complementing the HSA APIs.

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