Not so hARMless: ARM software development gets a major boost

Facebook, HP, Samsung and others are looking to jump-start development of software on ARM processors and in doing so are embarking on a risky, high-stakes road.
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor

What do Facebook, HP, AMD and Samsung have in common?

All of them are keen on using low-power processors to cut power consumption in chips, datacentres and mobile devices, and have helped found the Linaro Enterprise Group to invest resources in developing software for the energy-thrifty RISC (Reduced Instruction Set) chip architecture.

The goal of the group, whose formation was announced on Thursday at the ARM TechCon summit in Santa Clara, is to accelerate the rate of software development on ARM's RISC chips.

Though ARM's chips sit inside most of the world's phones, one of the major criticisms levelled (frequently by rival Intel) against their RISC chip architecture is that it lacks support for legacy applications for servers, desktops and netbooks. This is borne out in the real world, as Microsoft's Surface RT tablet ships with little legacy software due to the restraints imposed by the ARM platform.

Once ARM chips have a decent datacentre software ecosystem, it becomes a lot easier for companies to cut their electricity bills by transitioning from power-hungry Intel and AMD x86 chips to power-thrifty ARM processors.

The Linaro Enterprise Group's members represent a broad swathe of the technology industry, including chips (Applied Micro, ARM, Calxeda, Samsung), operating systems (Canonical, Red Hat), and datacentre gear (HP, IBM). 

"The significance of key industry players coming together like this to develop new aspects of the ecosystem is showing the transformation position the industry is now in," ARM's chief executive Warren East said in a statement. 

How much of a change?

However, though the industry could be in the midst of a 'transformation' - that is, fewer companies showing total allegiance to Intel - the question of how far it will transform, and into what, remains open.

For change to happen, the software needs to be developed. So far, this has been difficult

For change to happen, the software needs to be developed. So far, this has been difficult. RISC chip company Tilera launched a range of impressive 100-core processors in 2011 to take on Intel in the high-end datacentres, but judging by recent announcements this approach failed to see enough take-up and the company has now beat a retreat back down to embedded networking with a nine-core chip.

Similarly, RISC company Adapteva recently had to take to crowd-funding site Kickstarter for its multicore Parallela processor to try and get the money to develop a platform that would drum up developers for RISC chips.

Where Linaro may differ is in its trans-industry partner approach. This model has already worked for the open-source cloud platform OpenStack, which developed from the same type of motivation (a bunch of second-tier companies that wanted their own cloud, but didn't have the money to build an equivalent to Amazon or Microsoft on their own). 

Whether this approach works or not will become clear in the next year. For now, the enthusiasm is there - Facebook is testing ARM chips in its datacentre and AMD plans to license and make its own designs - but the evidence for future success is scant. The first server-grade 64-bit chips are due to come out next year and, at that point, we will find out if the Linaro Enterprise Group has what it takes to strongARM the industry into adopting them.

(It must be said that as Intel brings in chips made to new process technologies and ARM increases the server capabilities of its chips, the power consumption of both architectures will converge, but we are a few years yet away from that happening.)

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