ARM Roils the Waters with 64-bit Design

Arthur Cole

There's nothing like an old-fashioned processor war to liven things up in the tech industry.

However, the latest battle isn't just about who can make a better, and cheaper, x86 platform for the enterprise. Rather, the question at hand is whether x86 will continue to be the processor-of-choice in an age of ever-stringent power requirements.

The gauntlet came down this week in the form of ARM Holding's new AMRv8 architecture, the first to feature a 64-bit instruction set designed to push the device into higher-order enterprise environments. The plan on most drawing boards is to build systems with a high number of low-power cores that are tailored to meet the needs of burgeoning enterprise operations, such as cloud computing and the introduction of new mobile users platforms.

And by the looks of things, it won't be long before the v8 architecture arrives at a distributor near you. Nvidia is closing in on new designs aimed at pairing its Tegra and Tesla GPUs with multiple ARM cores, offering the ability to reduce operating costs for routine operations while still providing a processing kick for what the situation demands. Meanwhile, AppliedMicro is already out with the X-Gene, a multicore SoC designed to integrate compute, network and server components for cloud applications while delivering a 50 percent cut in power consumption.

Potential rivals are nothing new to Intel, but when they start to encroach upon long-standing business arrangements you know things are going to get ugly. HP is said to be close to a partnership with ARM designer Caldexa, presumably to develop new generations of low-power server technology. Nothing is official yet, but even the possibility that Intel's largest customer is considering such a deal must be one of the leading topics of discussion in the executive washroom.

To be sure, Intel has faced down competition before, and the company has been aggressively developing the low-power Atom line for the mobile market. Still, the next-generation Haswell design isn't due until 2013.

Of course, competition is the prime motivator behind most technological development, so the extra pressure in what was once a comfortable little business for Intel can only help matters for the wider industry.

And yet, it's interesting that the enterprise, which has always prided itself on being the center of the data universe, is so willing to adapt its trusted architecture to the needs of the mobile market rather than insist on the other way around.

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