ARM, TSMC Deal Aims to Put More Pressure on Intel in Servers, Mobile

The agreement will enable ARM to leverage TSMC's FinFET technology, which is similar to the Tri-Gate transistor architecture in Intel's current Ivy Bridge chips.

ARM took a key step in its growing competition with Intel by teaming up with Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing to create low-power chips for mobile devices and servers that leverage 3D transistor technologies similar to Intel€™s Tri-Gate architecture.

ARM and TSMC on July 23 announced an extension of their partnership that will include creating 64-bit ARM-designed processors starting with the 20-nanometer manufacturing process that will include TSMC€™s FinFET technology that will be higher performing and more energy-efficient than current chips.

Intel is using the Tri-Gate transistor architecture in its current 22nm Ivy Bridge processors, a move that company officials have said gives the chip significant performance and power consumption advantages over the 32nm Sandy Bridge products. The Tri-Gate technology moves away from the flat "planar" circuitry of previous transistor designs to a three-dimensional structure, which enables more transistors to be put onto the increasingly smaller chips and reduces electrical leakage.

TSMC€™s FinFET technology is similar, though it offers two rather than three gates. Both TSMC and Intel had been working on the 3D transistor designs for more than a decade, with Intel commercializing it first. Intel officials and industry analysts have said the Tri-Gate technology is an important step for the giant chip maker as it looks to take on ARM in the booming smartphone and tablet markets, where more than 90 percent of the devices run on ARM-designed chips.

TSMC€™s partnership with ARM is designed to close that advantage and, when combined with ARM€™s upcoming ARM v8 64-bit design, will challenge Intel in servers and PCs. The agreement also will enable chip makers to get their products to market faster than they can now, the two companies said.

ARM designs chips, which are then licensed by a host of chip vendors, including Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, Samsung Electronics and Nvidia. Manufacturers like TSMC are then contracted by the chip vendors to make the actual chips. These manufacturers will benefit from the new deal between ARM and TSMC, according to Simon Segars, executive vice president and general manager of ARM€™s Processor and Physical IP divisions.

"By working closely with TSMC, we are able to leverage TSMC's ability to quickly ramp volume production of highly integrated SoCs [systems-on-a-chip] in advanced silicon process technology," Segars said in a statement. "The ongoing deep collaboration with TSMC provides customers earlier access to FinFET technology to bring high-performance, power-efficient products to market."

A number of the chip vendors, including Nvidia, Calxeda, Nvidia and Marvell Technologies, have programs under way to get their ARM-based processors into low-power servers. ARM and its partners see an opportunity in the rise of massive and very dense data centers run by such companies as Google, Facebook and Microsoft, which are looking for extremely low-power systems to run huge numbers of transactions.

ARM also is getting interest from top-tier systems makers, including Hewlett-Packard and Dell, both of which have announced plans to develop ARM-based servers.

The move into servers will put ARM into direct competition with Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, whose x86-based chips€”Xeons and Opterons, respectively€”dominate the server market. ARM designs are currently at a key disadvantage: They only support 32-bit computing. However, with ARM v8, they not only will get 64-bit capabilities€”which is important, given that most of the key enterprise operating systems, such as Microsoft€™s Windows, are 64-bit€”but also other features important to data center environments, including greater virtualization support and more memory capacity.

ARM officials also are hoping that early access to TSMC€™s FinFET technology will help drive early adoption of their ARM v8 design. Systems with ARM v8-based chips aren€™t expected to hit the market until later in 2013 or 2014.

Analysts have said that ARM could gain some inroads into the server space, but some have cautioned against expecting the company to seriously challenge Intel€™s dominance, noting that both Intel and AMD have made significant strides in driving down the power consumption of their server chips while ramping up the performance.

In addition, HP last month opted for Intel€™s Atom-based Centerton chips rather than Calxeda€™s ARM-based processors for the first of the low-power servers that will come out of its Project Moonshot.