ARM Unveils 64-Bit ARMv8 Chip Architecture for Servers, PCs

ARM's new ARMv8 chip architecture will bring the company into closer competition with Intel and AMD in the PC and server markets.

ARM Holdings is taking a significant step forward in its ambitions to move its chip technology beyond mobile devices and into PCs and servers with the introduction of its first 64-bit architecture, ARMv8.

ARM officials released technical details of the new architecture Oct. 27 at the ARM TechCon show in Santa Clara, Calif., in particular its 64-bit capabilities, which will enable chips built on the architecture to handle more memory and storage, and larger files than the company's current 32-bit platform.

The ARMv8 architecture also will bring ARM and its manufacturing partners into even closer competition with chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, both of whose x86-based processors are 64-bit capable and dominate the PC and server markets. Executives from ARM and its partners, including Nvidia, Calxeda and Marvell Technologies, have said for months that they intend to bring the highly energy-efficient ARM architecture up the ladder and into the PC and server spaces to challenge Intel and AMD.

However, the lack of 64-bit capabilities-as well as other issues, including limited enterprise software support-were considered roadblocks to such ambitions. Most major operating systems, such as Microsoft's Window and Apple's Mac OS, are 64-bit, though ARM will get a boost when Microsoft next year releases Windows 8, which will support the ARM architecture. With ARMv8, the company is clearing some of those hurdles, according to ARM CTO Mike Muller.

"With our increasingly connected world, the market for 32-bit processing continues to expand and evolve creating new opportunities for 32-bit ARMv7 based processors in embedded, real-time and open application platforms." Muller said in a statement. "We believe the ARMv8 architecture is ideally suited to enable the ARM partnership to continue to grow in 32-bit application spaces and bring diverse, innovative and energy-efficient solutions to 64-bit processing markets."

It may be awhile before chip manufacturers and systems vendors can take advantage of the ARMv8 architecture. The company has made all specifications available to partners for licensing, and officials will disclosed chips based on ARMv8 in 2012. However, consumer and enterprise prototype systems aren't expected to hit the market until 2014.

ARM creates the chip designs, and then licenses those designs to manufacturers, such as Nvidia, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments and Samsung Electronics. Low-power ARM-designed chips dominate the booming market for mobile devices, including tablets and smartphones. However, just as Intel and, to a lesser extent AMD, look to make inroads into those lucrative spaces, ARM also is looking to leverage the energy efficiency of its designs to gain traction in PCs and servers, particularly in hyperscale environments like Web businesses.

ARM may be on the verge of a significant move into that area. Hewlett-Packard reportedly is working with Calxeda to develop servers based on ARM chips, a move that would give ARM the backing of a top-tier OEM and give a blow to Intel, which currently owns about 90 percent of the server market and has HP as its top customer.

ARM's current chip designs-including the Cortex-A9 and Cortex-A15-are based on its 32-bit ARMv7 architecture. The ARMv8 architecture will be backward compatible with existing 32-bit software-it includes two main execution states AArch64 for 64-bit computing and AArch32 for 32-bit computing. Other key features of ARMv7, such as TrustZone for security and Neon for multimedia formats, also will be found in ARMv8.