Noel Hurley

ARM's 64bit shift aims for server heartland

ARM has launched the first pair of processor cores that the company hopes will propel it into Intel's heartland of processors for compute servers. In the process, ARM has signed up AMD, the only other supplier of x86-compatible chips, as a licensee.

AMD and other companies, such as Calxeda and STMicroelectronics, plan to use the forthcoming Cortex-A50 series processor cores in servers and network switches that they anticipate will have a smaller energy footprint than those in use today, which are mostly based on x86 processors.

ARM has built up expertise in low-power processing through its experience in mobile, battery-powered systems for devices such as phones. ARM executive vice president of marketing and business development Ian Drew claimed: “The industry is starting to mature around mobile technologies” because of their low power consumption. The aim is to build data centres without the forced-air cooling they need today.

Suresh Gopalakrishnan, corporate vice president and general manager of AMD’s server business, told E&T the decision to adopt ARM for low-power servers is a “time to market issue”, adding, “the x86 will get there. There is nothing inherent in the architecture that makes low power impossible to achieve with the x86”.

To support its move into servers, ARM has developed a 64bit instruction set to expand the amount of memory its processors can address, following the move by other server architectures such as the x86. Noel Hurley, vice president of marketing and strategy in ARM’s processor division, said the opportunity of getting “a clean sheet of paper to develop a new architecture” would enable performance improvements in the shift from 32bit to 64bit code not just for server applications but for smartphones.

Gian Luca Bertino, executive vice president and general manager of STMicroelectronics’ digital convergence group, said: “It’s not just for servers. This is a general architecture that will go everywhere. We see 64bit taking over. It will be an evolution that every kind of system will see.”

Bertino argued that, although mobile devices might not require the memory addressing range of servers, being able to process bigger data words in image, network and audio processing would provide advantages over traditional embedded 32bit processors.

Hurley said the ARM 64bit processors will be able to switch between 32bit and 64bit modes, with 64bit operating systems hosting older 32bit applications until they were recompiled into 64bit code. He claimed the Cortex-A57 would offer three times the level of performance of today’s smartphones processors with its simpler sibling, the A-53, being used for low-power tasks when workloads are light. This pairing follows the Big-Little approach that ARM launched last year, joining the low-power A7 processor to the current high-end A15 core.

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