AMD to Integrate ARM Processor Into x86 Chips

 
 
By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2012-06-13
 
 
 

Advanced Micro Devices will integrate ARM-designed security technology into its x86-based processors, the latest move in an increasingly warm relationship between the two chip makers.

The closer partnership between AMD and ARM comes after more than a year of speculation around AMD€™s possible use of ARM technology€”which is commonly found in most smartphones and tablets€”and poses a greater challenge to Intel, the world€™s dominant PC and server chip maker that has aspirations of making inroads into the mobile device space.

AMD executives made the announcement June 13, amid their ongoing Fusion Developer Summit in Bellevue, Wash. It came a day after AMD, ARM and several other vendors unveiled a new consortium designed to promote heterogeneous computing that includes the use of both a computing chip and graphics processing unit (GPU).

Both announcements are in line with AMD€™s evolving strategy around how it will design its chips, and its willingness to bring third-party technology into the development process, what CEO Rory Read has called the company€™s €œambidextrous strategy.€ Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, said the decision to integrate ARM technology into AMD€™s chips €œdoesn€™t signal the death knell of x86.€

€œIt€™s not about [choosing between] an x86 core and an ARM core,€ Kay told eWEEK. €œToday€™s announcement is about adding an ARM core to x86.€

But it€™s an indication of the direction that AMD, long a distant No. 2 to Intel€™s dominant share of the global microprocessor market, is deciding to go, he said. While Intel is firmly sticking with the x86 architecture for both its traditional PC and server chips as well as its low-power Atom platform for the mobile-device space, AMD is open to third-party technologies. In a report last year, Kay said that of the two, AMD was in a better position culturally to adopt ARM technology.

€œAMD is somehow less committed to x86 [than Intel],€ he said in an interview, adding that it didn€™t mean that AMD was giving up on x86. Instead, €œphilosophically they don€™t have as many barriers to€ partnering with ARM.

The speculation around AMD€™s possible use of ARM technology kicked into high gear last year, when an ARM executive delivered a keynote address at the inaugural Fusion Developer Summit. That same ARM executive€”Jem Davis, an ARM Fellow and vice president of technology for ARM€™s Media Processing Division€”took the stage again at the show this year.

AMD executives said they will integrate ARM€™s Cortex-A5 processor with TrustZone security technology into future accelerated processing units (APUs), a move that will help AMD€™s efforts grow its presence in mobile devices, particularly tablets. TrustZone, first introduced in 2004, makes financial transactions, mobile payments and streaming content safer by creating secure zones on the chip that is protected from attackers. TrustZone is in all of ARM€™s Cortex-A chips, which are used in mobile devices.

The move will help AMD offset Intel€™s efforts to integrate greater security capabilities into its chips via its acquisition of security software vendor McAfee. TrustZone will begin appearing in some AMD chips for tablets and other devices next year, and run throughout the portfolio in 2014.

 €œWith AMD€™s support for, and inclusion in, the expanding TrustZone ecosystem, consumers and businesses can rest assured their data and content are secured by an industry-standard security solution that spans a multitude of devices and operating systems,€ AMD CIO Mike Wolfe said in a statement. €œThis example of AMD€™s ambidextrous strategy, which leverages our history of x86 and graphics innovation while also embracing other technologies and intellectual property, will help drive a more secure computing experience for our consumer and business customers.€

Endpoint Technologies€™ Kay said that for both AMD and ARM, the deal is a win. AMD gets improved security capabilities and takes another step in the direction of the mobile device space, and ARM finds another customer to license its technology. ARM doesn€™t make chips; instead, it licenses its chip designs to manufacturers, such as Qualcomm, Nvidia, Texas Instruments and Samsung Electronics.

€œARM is just happy to supply the technology, and AMD is happy to take it,€ he said.

AMD and ARM also are founding members of a consortium designed to create standards for heterogeneous computing, or the use of both the CPU and GPU. Currently, AMD, Intel and Nvidia offer chips with both the CPU and GPU integrated on the same piece of silicon€”what AMD calls APUs. Certain workloads run better on CPUs, while others run best on GPUs, which can process large numbers of tasks in parallel fashion.

AMD and ARM joined with Imagination Technologies, MediaTek and TI to create the Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation, which is aimed at creating a single architecture specification and a simpler program model that will enable developers to create software that can run on different heterogeneous€”or hybrid€”hardware platforms.

HSA will create developer tools, software development kits, libraries, documentation, training and other offerings for software developers, according to the group.

€œTogether, we are unleashing innovation; working together to drive a single architecture to overcome the programming limitations of today€™s central processing units (CPUs) and graphics processing units (GPUs),€ Phil Rogers, HSA president and a corporate fellow at AMD, said in a June 12 blog post. €œThe HSA Foundation does just that, as improved programmability will make accessing the power of heterogeneous processors as easy as today€™s CPU.€

The effort will touch on most areas of computing, from client and low-power systems to servers, mobile devices and embedded systems, Rogers wrote.

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