Tag Archives: ARM

ARM is a growing server-side threat to Intel

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Low profile, high potential.

2014 will be the year that specialised ARM-based chips gather momentum in the server market. That was not good news for Intel as it scrambled at CES to maintain relevance in the mobile device market. The last thing it needs – but the next thing it’s going to get – is competitive pressure on server processors, an increasingly rare example of a growth market that it dominates.

ARM maintained a relatively low profile at CES, leaving center stage to companies, like Qualcomm, that license its microprocessor architecture and make the chips that rule the smart phone and tablet space. Or, like Samsung or Huawei or ZTE, that make those devices. It did have a small stand at the Pepcom press preview event, though, showing examples of wearable products – the breakout category at the show – that it powers.

“Our customers can build optimal solutions, that’s what happening in the server space”, said Jeff Chu, an ARM marketing executive. The idea is to build chips that are specifically designed for a particular kind of application: media servers, for example. The ARM architecture is more modular and adaptable than Intel’s x86 monolith, which gives it the flexibility needed to support the development of an increasingly complex server-side ecosystem.

Chu said that AMD will be shipping samples of an ARM-based server chip in the next couple of months, with full production expected later this year. Broadcom is also working on a server-optimised processor. The two companies have different takes on how to build chips that improve performance and reduce power consumption for particular server applications, according to Chu.

Old guard chipmakers emphasise the old at Pepcom

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Plenty of leg, but no ARM at Pepcom.

If you were wondering why Intel and AMD released downbeat quarterly reports this week, you only had to look at their products. The difference, though, is that AMD has control of its own destiny, while Intel will have to rely on the kindness of strangers to survive.

The two chipmakers showcased the hottest products rocking their silicon at Pepcom’s Holiday Spectacular in San Francisco on Wednesday. That’s not the same, though, as saying they were showing the hottest products on the market.

Both companies were heavy on Windows 8 PCs and mobile devices. The former are slowly sliding toward kitchen appliance appeal and replacement cycles, and the latter seem to have gone underground. Intel did have a Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 10.1 running Android, but that was it. Everything else – HP, Acer, Sony, Toshiba, MSI, Dell, ASUS – was bog standard Windows. (To be fair, Dell also had a Pepcom display with a couple of nice bargain priced Android tablets front and center).

All the devices at both displays were powered by chips using Intel’s x86 architecture, which AMD also licenses. Intel doesn’t have a choice, of course. But AMD does. It’s making ARM-based processors for the server side of the industry, and the client-side might not be too far away.

“We’ll continue to work with [ARM] where we think the market asks for it,” said Sarah Youngbauer, AMD’s spokesperson at Pepcom. Given that the market is emphatically demanding mobile products, that might be the same as saying we should be expecting a product announcement soon.

Intel selling heavy metal thunder to a lightning fast market

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The next industry standard.

After playing with an Atom-powered smart phone at CES this year and hearing execs talk up Android, I saw glimmers of hope that Intel was finally coming to grips with the mobile world. It seems I had it backwards: the mobile world is tightening its grip on Intel’s corporate throat.

Long the dominant player in PC and big server processors, Intel is all but shut out of smart phones and tablets, a billion unit market, and has no presence at all in the machine-to-machine space, which could be five or ten times that size in the next handful of years. Its ARM-based competition is even beginning to creep into the increasingly energy conscious server segment.

Its luck isn’t likely change soon: a microcomputer mindset is hard-coded into Intel’s DNA. In his first quarterly earnings call, rookie CEO Brian Krzanich’s attempt to convince analysts that the company is finally on the right path ended up proving the opposite…

Intel was slow to respond to the ultra-mobile PC trend. The importance of that can be seen in the current market dynamics. The traditional PC market segment is down from our expectations at the beginning of the year while ultra-mobile devices like tablets are up.

Saying a tablet is an ultra-mobile PC is like calling a motorcycle an ultra-mobile car. That’s fine if you’re trying to cram a V–8 onto the frame because that’s the only kind of engine you make. Not so good if you’re trying to out race the competition.

Intel’s new captain must turn quickly

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A titanic job ahead.

Sounding defensive about the future of personal computers, Brian Krzanich, Intel’s newly appointed CEO, told USA Today that he’s not giving up on that sector but he will be going after the mobile market with renewed vigor.

With PC numbers falling and mobile device sales exploding, Intel is losing its dominant position in the semiconductor industry. More efficient processors based on ARM technology are the standard in the mobile world. And now, ARM chip makers are about to make a major new move into another Intel bastion, server farms.

Wired is reporting that a research collaboration between ARM, HP and Facebook has produced a new system-on-chip architecture that combines low energy requirements with purpose-built processing capability that’s optimised to run data center servers. It’s built around Memcached technology, an open source software platform that speeds up servers by holding critical data at the ready in fast random access memory, so it doesn’t have to be retrieved from slower disks and databases.

ARM chips are already finding a home in data centers, where – like the mobile market – energy efficiency is the top priority, and acceleration technology can make specialised applications run even faster than on powerful general purpose Intel processors.

Intel has struggled to find a place in the mobile sector. Earlier this year, it introduced a low end version of its Atom chip that’s intended to support Android phones in price conscious developing markets, and it’s pushing high end chips for its Window-based Ultrabook initiative. But for data centers and the mass smart phone market alike, the big chips burn too much electricity and the Atoms don’t have enough power to do the job.

Krzanich has to lead Intel into the mobile middle ground that ARM dominates. Or he will be left standing on the deck of a sinking PC market.

One OS to rule them all

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Built for ARM and x86 processors.

Ubuntu will be the next major player in mobile and desktop operating systems, if it delivers on its promise of releasing a fully integrated platform by April 2014.

Founder Mark Shuttleworth put the mobile version of the company's Linux distribution through its paces at the Pepcom event at CES 2013 tonight. Running on a Samsung Galaxy – for no particular reason except it's a convenient development platform, he said – Ubuntu did all the things you'd expect from Android or iOS.

His goal is to release a version of Ubuntu that works on literally any kind of platform: server, personal computer, tablet, mobile phone or television, on any kind of processor. One side benefit of adapting it to run on power and processing constrained mobile devices is that the big iron implementations become more efficient too. They're “totally cleaning” it, he said.

What Shuttleworth was really showing tonight was the smart phone interface they've developed. It looks as slick and user friendly as any Android implementation – in other words, the average user won't have a clue what operating system is installed. And doesn't need to care.

That's the key. Ubuntu, like other Linux variants, is open source and free to use. Making it the one OS that runs on any sort of device means it's an attractive platform for developers who want as broad a reach as possible and for manufacturers, who want to make devices in every category.

Ubuntu is the most popular version of Linux, according to Shuttleworth, who said that this year it will be installed on 10% of the computers shipped worldwide. That's a tall claim, but even so it might not be too far north of the truth by year's end. If Shuttleworth can stick to his deadline fifteen months from now, it'll just be the start.

NVIDIA CEO Huang gets the vision thing

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It was a little odd watching the CEO of NVIDIA, Jen-Hsun Huang, spend most of his press conference time editing photos, remoting from one device to another and playing computer games. NVIDIA is a chip maker, not a game publisher or software company or computer manufacturer. But his roundabout approach was a dramatic way of proving the power of his chips and the platforms they support.
The hour long demo session drove home the point that NVIDIA powers consumer electronics products, not computers for the workplace, although performance is comparable for many – most – personal applications.
NVIDIA makes chips that power a big slice of the non-iPad tablet market. The company is putting thousands of engineers to work supporting both Ice Cream Sandwich – an attempt to unify the disparate flavors of Android into a single market for app developers – and Windows 8.
With worldwide tablet sales approaching 100 million units, Huang called it the “fastest growing device in consumer electronics history,” and said that non-iPad tablets are taking an ever larger share of that market, currently at 40%.
NVIDIA’s flagship CPU is the Tegra 3, a four plus one core ARM processor. Four of the cores run user applications, the fifth manages processes and housekeeping functions that are usually left to auxiliary chips, or not handled at all. Tagged the “ninja core” by Huang, it manages power consumption and touch screen processing, among other chores.
It’s powering a wide range of devices here at CES, including a 7-inch tablet from ASUS that runs Android and has a $249 target price point. Tegra, and its brothers in ARM, are increasingly integrated into vehicles too, running dashboard and entertainment interfaces. Huang calls the automotive industry “a brand new consumer electronics segment.”
Huang is not the first to say it. But he makes the point better than most, communicating a coherent and seamless vision of where the consumer electronics industry is heading.

Ballmer won’t let the door hit him on the way out

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Microsoft is pulling out of CES after this year, presumably because the show doesn’t support its corporate and brand marketing goals. CEO Steve Ballmer’s farewell keynote was an hour-plus company sales pitch delivered at the top of his lungs, with a parade of product demonstrations by his executive team.
It was if he was saying “here’s why we don’t need you guys”. At least he didn’t mention the horse we rode in on.
Top of the list of reasons why Ballmer is happy following Apple out of CES is Windows 8. “There’s nothing more important” to Microsoft’s future, he said.
He and his team demoed the new Metro user interface. Assuming it will do what they say it will do, it’ll take it a step further down the Apple user interface roadmap than Apple itself has yet to go.
The concept is to have a seamless UI experience across PCs, game and video boxes and mobile devices, including phones and tablets. Apple is moving in that direction, but is doing it with two separate operating systems, iOS and OS X. Windows 8 is intended to do the job of both.
Microsoft continues to edge away from its former near-monogamous relationship with Intel. Ballmer said Windows 8 is designed to run just fine on x86 chips, from both Intel and AMD, but it’s built from the ground up to support ARM processors from NVIDIA, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm too.
Ballmer acknowledged that Microsoft is under pressure, particularly in mobile products, but said “competition is a great thing and I’m glad we have Windows”. Custer might have said the same about the 7th Cavalry.