ARM targets Intel with 2GHz multicore chips

ARM is preparing new enterprise partnerships as its Cortex-A9 processor goes fast and multicore
Written by Rupert Goodwins, Contributor

Cambridge-based chip company ARM has today announced the development of dual-core, quad-core and eight-core Cortex-A9 processor designs, explicitly aimed at markets currently served by Intel's x86 chips and IBM's PowerPC.

"This is a huge departure from what we've done in the past," Eric Schorn, vice president, marketing for ARM's processor division, told ZDNet UK. "We really wanted to take off the handcuffs and see what could be done with performance, performance, performance."

The new designs, available in two variants optimised for low power consumption or high performance, are intended for use by companies building their own chips. ARM claims that the new processors, which can run at up to 2GHz, are up to eight times more efficient than Intel's low-power chips in terms of performance per watt, with the high performance part running at five times the throughput of Intel's Atom chip for similar power levels.

The low-power part delivers twice the performance at a quarter the power, according to the company's published benchmarks.

"The sweet spot for most customers is dual-core," said Schorn, "but the base design can go up to quad-core and some partners are already building those. Eight way is coming. Everyone's high-end roadmap is putting down more cores, and we do that. We're headed in the direction of Intel's mainstream processors. We have other plans that surpass the current performance, and we'll intercept Intel in a high-margin area, not just with Atom."

The dual-core parts, which are designed to be made using fabrication company TSMC's 40nm chip manufacturing process, can be licensed now with delivery of the finished designs to partners in the fourth quarter of 2009. ARM itself will be making evaluation chips available to partners and software designers in the first quarter of 2010.

To date, ARM has mostly partnered with companies making components for wireless, consumer and automotive equipment. However, this new design will see new enterprise partners coming on-board. In particular, Schorn said that the high-performance multi-core ARM approach would open up parts of the market currently dominated by companies with large proprietary design teams — "blowing the doors off that by offering freely available IP", as he put it.

"Enterprise is a key opportunity", continued Schorn. "Our existing partners are executing extremely well in their existing markets. We have a new licence signed, with a number in the pipeline, and enterprise is well represented. The design is applicable to all sorts of servers, is cache-coherent so can do SMP, and will be wonderful for Linux, Apache and other parts of the enterprise stack".

ARM announced on 14 September that it had joined the Linux Foundation.

ARM also intends the multicore Cortex-A9 design to be used in consumer equipment. "If you look at the high end of embedded systems, netbooks and the like, there's not much innovation relative to the mobile phone area. We want to take the rate of change of mobile phone design and innovation into other areas. Consumers will see a lot more diversity at a lot faster pace," said Schorn.

The company says it gets its claimed level of performance at low power by having very finely tuned control over the different areas of the chip, with seven power zones able to turn off parts of the cache, maths, media and general processing areas automatically when idle.

Schorn said that he was not concerned by ARM's lack of Windows 7 compatibility. "We don't have a Big Windows announcement to make. We do have staff at Redmond, and we'll see what the future will hold. Talking about Windows is the wrong way of looking at it.

"If you look at what's happening with web-centric, internet-oriented demographics and things like Java virtual machines, just-in-time compilers, widgets and so on, it's not architecturally dependent. Look at Samsung with Yahoo widgets in its televisions. I don't see the need for Big Windows on your television."  

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