ARM Launches Cortex-M7 Chip Design for IoT, Wearables

Freescale and ST Microelectronics are licensing ARM's design, which offers more performance and efficiency than previous models.

Internet of things

ARM is taking another step into the increasingly competitive Internet of things market, introducing its latest Cortex-M processor that officials say offers twice the compute and digital signal processing capabilities of its predecessor.

ARM's new 32-bit Cortex-M7 "Pelican" chip design is aimed at high-end embedded systems that can span from network edge routers and industrial systems to connected cars and other Internet of things (IoT) devices, according to company officials. The Cortex-M7 will enable more compute power, intelligence and features in such systems.

In a conference call with journalists before the Cortex-M7's announcement Sept. 23, Nandan Nayampally, vice president of marketing for ARM's CPU group, noted the growing demand for more intelligence, connectivity and automation in everything from storage systems to health care devices. The Cortex-M7, with its improved performance, power efficiency and digital signal control, will enable chip makers to add more motors, displays and connectivity options, as well as improved voice control, to their processors for connected systems, or more granular control and better GPS accuracy to products used in drones, Nayampally said.

Such systems will "be able to marry a small footprint with [more] compute and longer battery life," he said.

A number of chip makers—including Freescale, ST Microelectronics and Atmel—have already licensed the Cortex-M7 design. ARM officials are hoping the new design will continue the success that previous Core-M chips have found. Since 2005, 8 billion Cortex-M units have shipped, more than 240 license agreements have been signed and there are more than 3,000 catalog parts leveraging Cortex-M. For Cortex-M4, more than 2.9 billion embedded processors shipped in 2013, and 1.7 billion already in 2014, Nayampally said. About 175 companies have licensed Cortex-M4 processors.

A wide range of tech vendors—from system makers like Cisco Systems to component companies like Intel—are aggressively pushing into the IoT market, which is expected to grow rapidly over the next several years. Cisco officials are predicting that by 2020, there will be 50 billion connected devices worldwide, while IDC analysts expect IoT- related revenues to hit $7.1 trillion by that year.

ARM's low-power chip architectures are found in more than 90 percent of such mobile devices as smartphones and tablets, and officials expect those same qualities of high performance and energy efficiency to give the company an advantage in the embedded space. However, Intel is pushing ahead with broad IoT and wearable device strategies—such as its small and power-efficient Quark family of systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) and its Galileo and Edison development platforms—and Advanced Micro Devices also is eyeing the embedded device space as a growth area.

ARM also has made previous moves to gain more traction in the IoT market beyond its Cortex-M portfolio. Officials in June announced the company was creating a new design center for chips that will be used in IoT and wearable devices, and in July it teamed with Samsung, Google's Nest business, Freescale and others to launch the Thread Group, a consortium aimed at promoting the Thread protocol for connectivity among smart home appliances and devices.