AMD Strategy Announcement Could Include ARM Deal

Embattled AMD could expand its relationship with ARM in the server chip space, and the announcement could come at an event in San Francisco Oct. 29.

Advanced Micro Devices executives will be in San Francisco Oct. 29 to talk about the company's ambidextrous strategy of using third-party silicon technology in its own server processors, and are promising that a "special guest" will appear on stage alongside AMD CEO Rory Read.

The event—which comes the same week as ARM's developer conference in nearby Santa Clara, Calif.—has fueled speculation that AMD is preparing to announce an expanded relationship with ARM, whose low-power non-x86 chip designs can be found in most tablets and smartphones, and which is eyeing a move into the server space. AMD already has a relationship with ARM, announcing in June that it will integrate ARM's Cortex-A5 processor with TrustZone security technology into future accelerated processing units (APUs), a move that could help AMD's efforts to expand its reach into high-growth markets like mobile devices.

AMD officials for a year have talked about the company's interest in offering AMD chips based on third-party silicon, though they have never explicitly said they planned to offer ARM-based processors. In an interview with eWEEK in August, Margaret Lewis, director of software planning for AMD's server chip business, said when discussing the ambidextrous strategy that when looking at customer needs, "you want to choose the right type of silicon for the right type of job."

During the Oct. 18 conference call with analysts and journalists to announce third-quarter financial numbers, Lisa Su, senior vice president and general manager of AMD's Global Business Unit, said in answering a question that "we said from our strategy all along that we believe we want to build into the larger ecosystems in the industry. So we'll continue to build x86 products, but as we've announced before, we also have a partnership with ARM in the trust sale and security area, and we'll continue to look at how we incorporate more third-party IP over time to address some of these higher-growing markets."

"They have been talking about it for a long time, and it makes sense," Roger Kay, principle analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, told eWEEK, adding that he was unsure what AMD would announce Oct. 29. "The thing they could say that would be the most positive and most dramatic would be that they are expanding their relationship with ARM. … They have dropped what could be termed 'hard hints' up until now."

The event is coming during a difficult time for AMD. Like many other tech vendors, AMD is being hurt by the slump in PCs sales over the past year, due in large part to the troubled global economy and the rising popularity of smartphones and tablets. The company, which this month announced it is cutting 15 percent of its workforce, is looking to stabilize its financial numbers, and is refocusing its efforts in particular areas and reduce its reliance on the PC business.

Among the three key areas is dense servers used in such environments as cloud computing and hyperscale data centers. Along with leveraging its x86-based Opterons, graphics technology and SeaMicro microserver technology, AMD also will use third-party processing cores, Read said during the Oct. 18 call. In highly dense environments, such as Web 2.0 and cloud, organizations are looking for high-performance servers that also are highly energy efficient. ARM officials believe their low-power chips would fit well with these microservers, and some top-tier OEMs—Dell and Hewlett-Packard in particular—already are integrating ARM-designed chips into some of their designs.

ARM is working to bring such key server capabilities as 64-bit processing, greater virtualization support and expanded memory into its upcoming ARM v8 platform, which is due to start appearing in systems by 2014. When asked when products with the third-party silicon technology would begin appearing on the market, AMD's Su said, "It will probably be in the 2014 timeframe."

Endpoint Technologies' Kay also said that an expanded ARM partnership also could help AMD in the fast-growing mobile device space. Both AMD and rival Intel are driving down the power consumption in their x86-based chips to make them more attractive to device makers. AMD in tablets and Intel in both tablets and smartphones are looking to Microsoft's upcoming Windows 8 operating system to help them in the tablet space.

Intel executives have committed themselves to the x86 architecture for tablets and smartphones, which now mostly run on chips designed by ARM and sold by Samsung Electronics, Qualcomm and others. At the moment, neither Intel nor AMD have much of a presence anywhere in the mobile device space, and Kay said there is no certainty the x86 architecture will be able to muscle aside ARM designs to make many inroads.

Partnering with ARM on chips for smartphones and tablets could help AMD gain a foothold in the fast-growing space, he said, particularly as the PC market shrinks.

"There's maybe enough room [in the PC space] for the market leader, but not enough room for AMD," Kay said. "AMD needs to move into faster-growing areas."