Intel remains the largest semiconductor company in the world. In 2011, the company made $12.9 billion on $54 billion in revenues, both records, and its PC Client and Data Center groups both saw revenues grow 17 percent. But what Intel really wants is a big piece of the rapidly growing mobile device pie, and is preparing to take some big steps in that direction. The company reportedly will release its “Ivy Bridge” chips later this month, which promise significant performance and energy-efficiency increases and will be key to Intel’s burgeoning Ultrabook strategy. The company also is promising smartphones and tablets this year running on its Medfield Atom platform.
ARM had spent most of its life in relative obscurity, until smartphones and tablets came onto the scene. Now, the company’s chip designs run in most of the devices on the market, thanks to manufacturing partners like Samsung, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments. The company got a boost when Microsoft last year announced its upcoming Windows 8 operating system would support system-on-a-chip (SoC) architectures like ARM’s. In addition, ARM and its partners are looking to take their high-performance, low-power chips into PCs and low-power servers, and some analysts say they have a chance to gain some traction in Web 2.0 and cloud environments. “For many applications that are more power-sensitive than performance-sensitive, ARM is going to have a real opportunity,” Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64, told eWEEK.
Advanced Micro Devices has been Intel’s chief rival in the x86 chip space for decades, with mixed results. In recent years, though, AMD has looked to differentiate itself by building chips that focus on performance per watt, and by leveraging its graphics capabilities inherited when the company bought ATI. AMD also made a significant move in February, when it bought low-power server maker SeaMicro for $334 million, a deal that not only gave it a greater presence in the booming microserver space, but also took away a key partner from Intel. At the same time, there continues to be speculation that AMD may eventually embrace ARM for some chips aimed at mobile devices.
Hewlett-Packard has been a longtime Intel partner, putting the chip maker’s Xeon and Itanium processors into its ProLiant and Integrity systems and Intel chips into its PCs. HP officials also are realists, and see the growing demand for extremely low-power servers. With that in mind, they announced in November 2011 a partnership with Calxeda—a company that makes server chips based on ARM designs—to build ARM-based servers as part of its larger Project Moonshot.
Samsung is the world’s second-largest semiconductor maker, behind Intel, and has been a key ARM partner over the years, building chips for a wide range of mobile handsets, smartphones and tablets. However, there also is speculation that Samsung may be gearing up to make a run at Intel in the server space, with industry observers pointing to the company’s hiring of several ex-AMD officials over the past couple of years, many of whom have server chip expertise. Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Research, noted to eWEEK that some of those hired also have SoC experience, so Samsung’s motives “might not be exclusively server-oriented. But it’s an indication that they’re at least investigating [a server chip push].”
7Other ARM Partners
Other ARM manufacturing partners also appear to be looking to expand their chip portfolios to include PC and server offerings. Officials with both Marvell and Nvidia have said their respective companies have projects underway to create ARM-based server chips, and AppliedMicro in October 2011 showed off a prototype chip based on ARM’s upcoming ARMv8 architecture that includes 64-bit support. In addition, Qualcomm is developing a quad-core version of its Snapdragon S4 chip to run in Windows 8 laptops.
Tilera has been selling low-power, many-core chips based on its own architecture since 2007, and officials say they offer much better performance-per-watt metrics than either Intel or AMD, and are promising chips with 100 or more cores. Tilera also is targeting Web-based companies, such as Facebook, Amazon and Google, which run massive data centers and are looking for greater power efficiency and density. It’s also a key market that both Intel and ARM are targeting for their low-power chips.
9Mobile Device Makers
Smartphone and tablet makers like Apple, Samsung, Motorola and HTC have primarily turned to ARM-designed chips to run their devices, due to the high performance and low power of the processors. But Intel is putting its massive R&D and marketing muscle behind its own mobile device efforts, and as offerings like Medfield and Ivy Bridge chips hit the market—along with Microsoft 8—these systems makers will find themselves with more options. At the same time, Lenovo, Acer, Asus and others are also embracing Intel’s Ultrabook initiative, which is another avenue for Intel to take into the mobile device space.
The software maker’s upcoming Windows 8 offers promise for both Intel and ARM. The operating system will not only be optimized for tablets—which is good for Intel, a longtime Microsoft partner—but also will support ARM’s architecture. Microsoft also has created a Windows on ARM developer seeding program.
Google’s Android mobile OS continues to grow in popularity, and now accounts for about 48 percent of the smartphone space, according to recent numbers by Nielsen. Most of the smartphones and tablets it runs on are powered by ARM chips. But in September 2011, Intel and Google announced an expanded alliance that will optimize Android for Intel’s Atom platform. They also showed off a prototype smartphone running Android Honeycomb and powered by a Medfield chip.
13Gemalto, and Giesecke & Devrient
ARM officials on April 3 announced a joint venture with the two European security software vendors that will create a common security standard for such devices as smartphones and tablets, a move that mirrors what Intel and McAfee are doing.