ARM, TSMC Tape Out First Cortex-A57 Chips for Mobile Devices, Servers

The Cortex-A57 is the first chip based on the 64-bit ARMv8 design, and includes TSMC's FinFET transistor design for better energy efficiency.

ARM Holdings and chip manufacturer Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. have "taped out" the first ARM Cortex-A57 processors, which officials said will find their way into not only mobile devices like tablets and smartphones, but also high-end computers and servers.

Having been taped out, the Cortex-A57, part of ARM's 64-bit ARMv8 chip series, is now ready for mass production, according to the two companies.

The tape-out is the first milestone in an agreement between ARM and TSMC a year ago to build low-power chips for mobile devices and servers that leverage 3D transistor technologies that are similar to Intel's high-profile Tri-Gate architecture. According to ARM officials, the Cortex-A57 is the company's highest-performing chip, thanks in part to the use of TSMC's 16-bit FinFET technology, which will lead to greater performance and improved energy efficiency.

"This first ARM Cortex-A57 processor implementation paves the way for our mutual customers to leverage the performance and power efficiency of 16nm FinFET technology," Tom Cronk, executive vice president and general manager of ARM's Processor Division, said in a statement. "The joint effort of ARM, TSMC and TSMC's OIP design ecosystem partners demonstrates the strong commitment to provide industry-leading technology for customer designs to benefit from our latest 64-bit ARMv8 architecture, big.LITTLE processing and ARM POP IP across a wide variety of market segments."

The big.Little design addresses users' seemingly conflicting demands for more performance and longer battery life, while the POP IP technology helps boost performance.

ARM's low-power chip designs are found in most smartphones and tablets, a booming market that Intel is aggressively pursuing. ARM designs are used in chips manufactured by the likes of Samsung Electronics, Nvidia, Texas Instruments and Qualcomm.

Intel has been working to adapt its more power-hungry x86 designs, which power most of the world's PCs and servers, to the demands of the mobile device space. A key step in that direction came in 2011, when Intel engineers announced their 3D Tri-Gate transistor architecture, which essentially moves away from the flat "planar" circuitry of previous designs and to a three-dimensional structure. The aim is to increase the chip's performance while driving down power consumption.

Intel's Tri-Gate architecture began appearing last year in the chip maker's 22-nanometer processors.

In July 2012, ARM and TSCM announced an extension of their partnership to include the manufacturer's FinFET technology in future ARM designs. The FinFET technology is similar to Tri-Gate, though it offers two rather than three gates. ARM officials are looking to the FinFET technology and its 64-bit ARMv8 designs to challenge Intel, not only in the mobile device space, but also in the Intel strongholds of PCs and servers. They see an opportunity in the growing demand for smaller, more energy-efficient servers in such environments as hyperscale computing. Web-based businesses like Google and Facebook, which run massive, dense data centers, are looking for systems that can run huge numbers of smaller workloads, while keeping energy and space costs down.

"Our multi-year, multi-node collaboration with ARM continues to deliver advanced technologies to enable market-leading SoCs across mobile, server and enterprise infrastructure applications," Cliff Hou, TSMC's vice president of R&D, said in a statement. "This achievement demonstrates that the next-generation ARMv8 processor is FinFET-ready for TSMC's advanced technology."

Already several ARM chip partners, such as Calxeda and Marvell Technologies, offer server processors based on ARM's 32-bit designs. Samsung reportedly is gearing up its server chip capabilities, and officials with longtime Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices have said their company next year will begin offering server chips based on the ARMv8 designs.

In addition, top-tier systems makers are embracing the idea of low-power servers based on ARM chips. Hewlett-Packard is partnering with Calxeda as part of its larger Project Moonshot initiative to build high-performing and energy-efficient systems. In addition, Dell is working with both Calxeda and Marvell in its ARM-based server projects Copper and Zinc.