ARM Eyes Data Center, New Markets with Cortex-A15 Chip Design

ARM officials unveil the Cortex-A15 design, which will have features, including virtualization support, that will help it expand beyond smartphones and possibly into servers.

ARM Holdings, whose chip designs already are found in most of the current smartphones, including Apple's iPhone and devices based on Google's Android OS, is now looking to expand its reach into other areas.

ARM officials Sept. 9 unveiled their next major chip design, the Cortex-A15, which had been code-named "Eagle." The officials are promising a fivefold improvement in performance in a power envelope similar to current ARM processors. Chips using the design will be able to run at up to 2.5GHz and with two to possibly 16 processing cores.

"It's a pretty big bump in performance," Nandan Nayampally, director of product marketing for ARM, said in an interview with eWEEK. "It opens up our market to very new [products]."

ARM is the dominant chip player in the burgeoning smartphone market. The company creates the chip design, which it licenses to the likes of Texas Instruments, Samsung and ST Ericsson. Those companies then use the design to build the processors.

All three companies already have licensed the new Cortex-A15 design, according to ARM.

It's an area that chip giant Intel, which wants to grow beyond its traditional server and PC businesses, is anxious to get into. Intel officials have been trying to move their Atom chips into the space, and on Aug. 30 the company bought Infineon Technologies' wireless chip business for $1.4 billion.

For its part, ARM is now looking to move into areas that Intel and its rival, Advanced Micro Devices, now occupy. The company is ramping up the performance in its Cortex A-15 design. Currently the highest-performing ARM design is the dual-core Cortex-A8, which runs at 1GHz.

And while the single- and dual-core Cortex A-15 will still be used in smartphones, the higher core count and such features as support for virtualization and for greater memory capacity-up to 1TB of physical memory, compared with 40GB currently-could help it move into such devices as tablet PCs, wireless base stations, notebooks and possibly enterprise devices, including routers and servers, according to ARM officials.

At the Hot Chips conference last month, ARM officials talked about how the virtualization support could be a key pathway into the data center. They said that several virtualization technology vendors, such as VMware, are working on hypervisors that will support ARM's new chip design, and that companies that make hypervisors for the mobile and embedded spaces also are creating products to support the Cortex-A15 chip design.

The Cortex-A15-which will still be a 32-bit design-won't have the muscle to make its way into many mainstream servers, but it could find its way into smaller systems that run highly parallelized, edge-of-network applications, according to ARM.

With the rise of highly virtualized scale-out data centers and the adoption of cloud computing, coupled with businesses' concerns about the rising costs of power, cooling and space, a growing number of IT vendors-beyond Intel and AMD-are looking for ways to build chips and systems to meet demands for high performance and energy efficiency.

Startup SeaMicro is looking to build highly efficient servers for cloud computing and scale-out Internet workloads using Intel's Atom chip. Tilera already has built 36- and 64-core processors, and is working on future processors with as many as 200 cores or more. Smooth-Stone wants to build ARM-powered servers, and Lyric Semiconductor is developing an alternative to x86 chips called the GP5, which will be based on probability processing.

The virtualization support in the Cortex-A15 also will have application for smartphones, said ARM's Nayampally, noting that users could switch between two operating environments, using one for personal tasks and another for business.

However, it will be awhile before the Cortex-A15 appears in devices, Nayampally said. ARM still has to see devices with its latest design, the Cortex-A9, come to market, which should happen later this year.

For the Cortex-A15, devices using the chip will go to market later in 2012, he said.

ARM officials have designed the Cortex-A15 to be manufactured in 32- and 28-nanometer processors, and have a road map for extending down to 20nm.