AMD, Marvell Heat Up x86-ARM Competition

AMD plans to follow Intel in its efforts to move the x86 architecture into the tablet space dominated by ARM chips. Meanwhile, Marvell shows off an ARM chip for the data center.

New and proposed chips from Advanced Micro Devices and Marvell illustrate the collision course the x86 architecture and ARM-designed processors are on.

AMD officials, during the company's annual analyst day Nov. 9, unveiled a roadmap showing off a host of processors they have planned for the next few years, such as the 20-core "Terramar" chip for two- and four-socket servers and "Sepang," a 10-core product for lower-cost, energy-efficient systems.

Also on the roadmap are "Krishna" and "Wichita," processors built on AMD's 28-nanometer manufacturing process that will target tablet PCs and netbooks. Due out in 2012, the two- and four-core processors will be APUs (accelerated processing units), part of AMD's Fusion strategy that puts the graphics processor and CPU on the same piece of silicon.

AMD and rival Intel both see the tablet space as a way to expand the reach of their x86-based products beyond their traditional PC and server businesses. Intel next year is scheduled to release Core processors that will be based on its 32-nm "Sandy Bridge" microarchitecture, with some of those chips aimed at the tablet space. At the same time, Intel officials have plans to aggressively grow their Atom platform in a wide range of areas, including mobile devices and the embedded market.

The tablet space is an attractive one to the chip vendors. Reinvigorated by the release earlier this year of the iPad by Apple, growth in the market is now being fueled by a host of other vendors-including Samsung, Lenovo, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco Systems-who plan to roll out their own tablets. ABI Research has estimated that the total number of tablets that will ship in 2010 will exceed 11 million units. Gartner says that number could hit 208 million by 2014.

Like the mobile handset space, much of the tablet market is dominated by processors based designs from ARM, and officials with that company have said they have no intentions of giving ground to x86-based products.

At the same time, they are looking to move their processor designs up the ladder and into the data center-particularly in smaller servers designed to rapidly process transactions in such environments as clouds-an area that is the domain of x86 chips. ARM officials have been saying for several months that the company's new Cortex-A15 processor design, which includes support for virtualization, up to 16 cores and more memory capacity than its predecessors, could be their pathway into the data center. The new ARM-designed chip from Marvell could be the processor that gets ARM there.

Marvell officials are demonstrating their quad-core Armada XP chip at the ARM Technology Conference Nov. 9-11 in Santa Clara, Calif. The processor runs at 1.6GHz and includes a host of features that can be used in servers, including four enterprise-class networking ports, up to 2MB of Level 2 cache, 4 PCI Express Gen 2.0 units and multiple USB ports.

Marvell officials in a statement called the Armada XP "the fastest ARM processor available on the market today" and touted the chip's energy efficiency. They said in statement that the Armada XP SoC (system on a chip) is based on the ARM v7 architecture, but it's unclear whether it's the Cortex-A15 design. However, like the Cortex-A15, the Armada XP is aimed at the data center for environments that call for high performance and energy efficiency. Officials pointed to cloud computing applications, including high-performance networking and Web servers, and high-volume home servers like NAS (network-attached storage) and media systems, as targets for the chip.

"Marvell's introduction of a powerful solution for enterprise-class cloud computing applications is a very important milestone in the mobile Internet revolution-cloud computing mobile servers like those powered by the Armada XP are the key link in what I envision to be a seamless, unified ecosystem of mobile-connected devices, information appliances and smart -furnishings,'" Weili Dal, Marvell co-founder, said in a statement.

Marvell officials already have been looking to expand the devices its chips run in. In September, Marvell unveiled the tri-core ARM-based Armada 628 aimed not only at smartphones, but also tablets.

ARM processor designs are licensed by a host of chip makers, including, Samsung, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm, and are found in the majority of smartphones and a growing number of other devices, such as tablets PCs.

Now ARM officials are looking to move into servers. Marvell's Armada XP could help them do that. In addition, another company, Smooth-Stone, said it plans to release ARM-based processor for servers.

ARM's push dovetails with other efforts to use low-power, energy-efficient chips in servers. SeaMicro is using Intel's Atom processors, developed initially for netbooks, to build its servers. SeaMicro's SM1000 server holds 512 Atom chips. Quanta Computer is packing 512 processing cores using chips from Tilera to build servers that the ODM (original design manufacturer) will sell to other systems makers.