ARM Processors Set to Challenge x86 On Its Own Turf

By Michael Feldman

February 2, 2011

The dominance of the x86 in desktop machines, servers, and supercomputers will soon be challenged by the ARM microprocessor. That according Tudor Brown, ARM Holdings’ president and co-founder, who this week took a few shots at the x86 dynasty. Brown’s comments and recent events suggest future ARM-based processors could form a credible threat to high-end CPUs made by AMD and Intel.

Brown’s comments this week, which appear in a MarketWatch report, reiterate the company’s plans to design higher end microprocessors aimed at the desktop and server market, the current stronghold of the x86. According to the him, ARM’s superior energy efficiency is now especially sought after in the datacenter.

From the MarketWatch article: “ARM continues to develop efficient products in terms of power consumption and performance that’s very good for the mobile space,” said Brown. “Those same credentials are appropriate for as we move to servers and high-performance computing.”

ARM is a huge player in the mobile computing space, and is especially well entrenched in the fast-growing tablet market, where the architecture enjoys a 95 percent share. When total shipments are considered, ARM outruns x86 by about a 10-to-1 margin. In 2010, more than 6 billion ARM-based processors were sold, and that number is projected to grow to 8 or 9 billion over the next three years.

Volume is critical since it drives down chip costs and attracts software providers, who, for obvious reasons, prefer to sell their wares on the most widely deployed architectures. In fact, it was the economics of volume that allowed the x86 to attack the server and HPC market from below, displacing higher-end RISC offerings, not to mention Intel’s home-grown Itanium CPU.

Berkeley computer science professor and RISC pioneer Dave Patterson thinks RISC is due for a comeback though. In a recent blog posted on the ARM Holdings website, Patterson argues that the “PostPC” era will see a return to the simpler, more efficient designs of RISC architectures:

“The importance of maintaining the sequential programming model combined with the increasingly abundant number of transistors from Moore’s Law led, in my view, to wretched excess in computer design.” he writes. “Measured by performance per transistor or by performance per watt, the designs of the late 1990s and early 2000s were some of the least efficient microprocessors ever built. This lavishness was acceptable for PCs, where binary compatibility was paramount and cost and battery life were less important, but performance was delivered more by brute force than by elegance.”

It’s not just about shipment volumes and computational efficiency though. ARM has a very different business model than the x86 vendors — one that allows a lot more players into the game. Unlike Intel and AMD, ARM Holdings licenses its microprocessor designs to other vendors, who build the actual processors or devices and pay royalties to ARM in addition to licensing fees. Although Intel Corporation dwarfs ARM Holdings in employee count and revenue, if you include the 200-odd companies that build products with ARM intellectual property, the situation is reversed.

Currently, ARM processors lack a foothold on the desktop and server. But the company’s next-generation Cortex-A15 chip is certainly a step in that direction. Although still essentially a 32-bit design, the A15 adds double-precision floating point support, a 128-bit SIMD engine (NEON), a 1 TB address reach, ECC on cache, virtualization support, as well as much better performance than the current Cortex-A9 generation. The design allows for a 4-way SMP cache-coherent processor, with the possibility for up to 8 cores (or perhaps even 16 cores) to be supported using the CoreLink CCI-400 interconnect. The first A15 products are expected to be delivered sometime in 2012.

ARM is targeting the A15 architecture to everything from smartphones and tablets to network routers and low-power servers. Energy efficiency is the big selling point here. In ultra-scale datacenters aimed at Web search, social media, media serving, and essentially any throughput-intensive application, energy usage is a critical cost. For the same reason, high performance computing facilities are also energy constrained, encouraging HPC users and vendors to search for lower power alternatives to the x86.

The initial chipmaker to latch onto ARM for high-end computing is NVIDIA, who announced its intentions to marry future ARM CPUs with “Maxwell” generation GPU cores on the same chip. Those parts are slated to end up in desktops, servers, and supercomputers, and compete head-on with x86-based offerings from Intel and AMD. At this point, it’s not clear if NVIDIA intends to use the A15 as the basis for its first CPU-GPU processors or wait for a full 64-bit capable ARM architecture, which at this point is still under wraps.

Although NVIDIA is the first vendor to reveal its plans to build ARM-flavored chips for the server market, there’s nothing to prevent other vendors from following suit. It’s not unreasonable to imagine firms like Texas Instruments or Samsung making ARM server parts for this lower volume (but higher margin) market. Because of the open licensing model, an ARM-based server business could provide a much greater diversity of offerings than would be possible from the current x86 duopoly.

In HPC, companies that want to stake out a niche with custom FP accelerators (think ClearSpeed-like vendors) might consider an ARM-SIMD hybrid chip analogous to NVIDIA’s ARM-GPU processor. SiCortex-like companies could design ultra-low power HPC machines by tweaking the ARM design for their own purposes, or even second-sourcing existing ARM server chips. Since manycore programming frameworks like the open standard OpenCL (and the closed standard CUDA) are now available, these same companies can offer software stacks that leverage the growing software base built on top of these APIs.

Of course, AMD and Intel are not about to let ARM’s expansion go unchallenged. In fact as ARM prepares to move up the food chain into x86 markets, AMD and Intel are moving into the low-power space, with Bobcat and Atom, respectively. Especially as smartphones and tablets eat into the desktop/laptop space, the x86 makers are following their customers’ demands.

Intel, in particular, with its x86-compatible Atom processors built for low-power mobile computing, already has an architecture that is at least as capable as the current crop of ARM processors in performance, although not quite as impressive in the energy efficiency department. But given Intel’s considerable R&D heft and superior chip manufacturing capability, the company has a decent chance of taking the battle to ARM at the low end as well as defending its high-end territory.

ARM’s largest weakness in the desktop and server space is software. Although Microsoft just announced it will support ARM on Windows 8, the architecture has a big stack of software to swallow before it can reach parity with x86, especially in the server arena. None of this is insurmountable for ARM proponents, and we may be at a point where the business model of chip making and shifting customer demands now favor the little guys.

On the other hand, Intel and AMD have been pushing past their RISC challengers for nearly three decades, from the PowerPC to Sparc. Over the next few years we’ll see if the x86 juggernaut has run out of steam or if it can prevail at least one more time.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

TACC Helps ROSIE Bioscience Gateway Expand its Impact

April 26, 2017

Biomolecule structure prediction has long been challenging not least because the relevant software and workflows often require high-end HPC systems that many bioscience researchers lack easy access to. Read more…

By John Russell

Messina Update: The US Path to Exascale in 16 Slides

April 26, 2017

Paul Messina, director of the U.S. Exascale Computing Project, provided a wide-ranging review of ECP’s evolving plans last week at the HPC User Forum. Read more…

By John Russell

IBM, Nvidia, Stone Ridge Claim Gas & Oil Simulation Record

April 25, 2017

IBM, Nvidia, and Stone Ridge Technology today reported setting the performance record for a “billion cell” oil and gas reservoir simulation. Read more…

By John Russell

ASC17 Makes Splash at Wuxi Supercomputing Center

April 24, 2017

A record-breaking twenty student teams plus scores of company representatives, media professionals, staff and student volunteers transformed a formerly empty hall inside the Wuxi Supercomputing Center into a bustling hub of HPC activity, kicking off day one of 2017 Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge (ASC17). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Remote Visualization Optimizing Life Sciences Operations and Care Delivery

As patients continually demand a better quality of care and increasingly complex workloads challenge healthcare organizations to innovate, investing in the right technologies is key to ensuring growth and success. Read more…

Groq This: New AI Chips to Give GPUs a Run for Deep Learning Money

April 24, 2017

CPUs and GPUs, move over. Thanks to recent revelations surrounding Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), the computing world appears to be on the cusp of a new generation of chips designed specifically for deep learning workloads. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

Musk’s Latest Startup Eyes Brain-Computer Links

April 21, 2017

Elon Musk, the auto and space entrepreneur and severe critic of artificial intelligence, is forming a new venture that reportedly will seek to develop an interface between the human brain and computers. Read more…

By George Leopold

MIT Mathematician Spins Up 220,000-Core Google Compute Cluster

April 21, 2017

On Thursday, Google announced that MIT math professor and computational number theorist Andrew V. Sutherland had set a record for the largest Google Compute Engine (GCE) job. Sutherland ran the massive mathematics workload on 220,000 GCE cores using preemptible virtual machine instances. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

NERSC Cori Shows the World How Many-Cores for the Masses Works

April 21, 2017

As its mission, the high performance computing center for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, NERSC (the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center), supports a broad spectrum of forefront scientific research across diverse areas that includes climate, material science, chemistry, fusion energy, high-energy physics and many others. Read more…

By Rob Farber

Messina Update: The US Path to Exascale in 16 Slides

April 26, 2017

Paul Messina, director of the U.S. Exascale Computing Project, provided a wide-ranging review of ECP’s evolving plans last week at the HPC User Forum. Read more…

By John Russell

ASC17 Makes Splash at Wuxi Supercomputing Center

April 24, 2017

A record-breaking twenty student teams plus scores of company representatives, media professionals, staff and student volunteers transformed a formerly empty hall inside the Wuxi Supercomputing Center into a bustling hub of HPC activity, kicking off day one of 2017 Asia Student Supercomputer Challenge (ASC17). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Groq This: New AI Chips to Give GPUs a Run for Deep Learning Money

April 24, 2017

CPUs and GPUs, move over. Thanks to recent revelations surrounding Google’s new Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), the computing world appears to be on the cusp of a new generation of chips designed specifically for deep learning workloads. Read more…

By Alex Woodie

NERSC Cori Shows the World How Many-Cores for the Masses Works

April 21, 2017

As its mission, the high performance computing center for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science, NERSC (the National Energy Research Supercomputer Center), supports a broad spectrum of forefront scientific research across diverse areas that includes climate, material science, chemistry, fusion energy, high-energy physics and many others. Read more…

By Rob Farber

Hyperion (IDC) Paints a Bullish Picture of HPC Future

April 20, 2017

Hyperion Research – formerly IDC’s HPC group – yesterday painted a fascinating and complicated portrait of the HPC community’s health and prospects at the HPC User Forum held in Albuquerque, NM. HPC sales are up and growing ($22 billion, all HPC segments, 2016). Read more…

By John Russell

Knights Landing Processor with Omni-Path Makes Cloud Debut

April 18, 2017

HPC cloud specialist Rescale is partnering with Intel and HPC resource provider R Systems to offer first-ever cloud access to Xeon Phi "Knights Landing" processors. The infrastructure is based on the 68-core Intel Knights Landing processor with integrated Omni-Path fabric (the 7250F Xeon Phi). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CERN openlab Explores New CPU/FPGA Processing Solutions

April 14, 2017

Through a CERN openlab project known as the ‘High-Throughput Computing Collaboration,’ researchers are investigating the use of various Intel technologies in data filtering and data acquisition systems. Read more…

By Linda Barney

DOE Supercomputer Achieves Record 45-Qubit Quantum Simulation

April 13, 2017

In order to simulate larger and larger quantum systems and usher in an age of “quantum supremacy,” researchers are stretching the limits of today’s most advanced supercomputers. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Pulls Back the Covers on Its First Machine Learning Chip

April 6, 2017

This week Google released a report detailing the design and performance characteristics of the Tensor Processing Unit (TPU), its custom ASIC for the inference phase of neural networks (NN). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Quantum Bits: D-Wave and VW; Google Quantum Lab; IBM Expands Access

March 21, 2017

For a technology that’s usually characterized as far off and in a distant galaxy, quantum computing has been steadily picking up steam. Read more…

By John Russell

Trump Budget Targets NIH, DOE, and EPA; No Mention of NSF

March 16, 2017

President Trump’s proposed U.S. fiscal 2018 budget issued today sharply cuts science spending while bolstering military spending as he promised during the campaign. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Compiler Company PathScale Seeks Life Raft

March 23, 2017

HPCwire has learned that HPC compiler company PathScale has fallen on difficult times and is asking the community for help or actively seeking a buyer for its assets. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

CPU-based Visualization Positions for Exascale Supercomputing

March 16, 2017

In this contributed perspective piece, Intel’s Jim Jeffers makes the case that CPU-based visualization is now widely adopted and as such is no longer a contrarian view, but is rather an exascale requirement. Read more…

By Jim Jeffers, Principal Engineer and Engineering Leader, Intel

For IBM/OpenPOWER: Success in 2017 = (Volume) Sales

January 11, 2017

To a large degree IBM and the OpenPOWER Foundation have done what they said they would – assembling a substantial and growing ecosystem and bringing Power-based products to market, all in about three years. Read more…

By John Russell

TSUBAME3.0 Points to Future HPE Pascal-NVLink-OPA Server

February 17, 2017

Since our initial coverage of the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer yesterday, more details have come to light on this innovative project. Of particular interest is a new board design for NVLink-equipped Pascal P100 GPUs that will create another entrant to the space currently occupied by Nvidia's DGX-1 system, IBM's "Minsky" platform and the Supermicro SuperServer (1028GQ-TXR). Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Leading Solution Providers

Tokyo Tech’s TSUBAME3.0 Will Be First HPE-SGI Super

February 16, 2017

In a press event Friday afternoon local time in Japan, Tokyo Institute of Technology (Tokyo Tech) announced its plans for the TSUBAME3.0 supercomputer, which will be Japan’s “fastest AI supercomputer,” Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Is Liquid Cooling Ready to Go Mainstream?

February 13, 2017

Lost in the frenzy of SC16 was a substantial rise in the number of vendors showing server oriented liquid cooling technologies. Three decades ago liquid cooling was pretty much the exclusive realm of the Cray-2 and IBM mainframe class products. That’s changing. We are now seeing an emergence of x86 class server products with exotic plumbing technology ranging from Direct-to-Chip to servers and storage completely immersed in a dielectric fluid. Read more…

By Steve Campbell

Facebook Open Sources Caffe2; Nvidia, Intel Rush to Optimize

April 18, 2017

From its F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif., today, Facebook announced Caffe2, a new open-source, cross-platform framework for deep learning. Caffe2 is the successor to Caffe, the deep learning framework developed by Berkeley AI Research and community contributors. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IBM Wants to be “Red Hat” of Deep Learning

January 26, 2017

IBM today announced the addition of TensorFlow and Chainer deep learning frameworks to its PowerAI suite of deep learning tools, which already includes popular offerings such as Caffe, Theano, and Torch. Read more…

By John Russell

BioTeam’s Berman Charts 2017 HPC Trends in Life Sciences

January 4, 2017

Twenty years ago high performance computing was nearly absent from life sciences. Today it’s used throughout life sciences and biomedical research. Genomics and the data deluge from modern lab instruments are the main drivers, but so is the longer-term desire to perform predictive simulation in support of Precision Medicine (PM). There’s even a specialized life sciences supercomputer, ‘Anton’ from D.E. Shaw Research, and the Pittsburgh Supercomputing Center is standing up its second Anton 2 and actively soliciting project proposals. There’s a lot going on. Read more…

By John Russell

HPC Startup Advances Auto-Parallelization’s Promise

January 23, 2017

The shift from single core to multicore hardware has made finding parallelism in codes more important than ever, but that hasn’t made the task of parallel programming any easier. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Technique Propels Deep Learning at Scale

February 21, 2017

Researchers from Baidu’s Silicon Valley AI Lab (SVAIL) have adapted a well-known HPC communication technique to boost the speed and scale of their neural network training and now they are sharing their implementation with the larger deep learning community. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

IDG to Be Bought by Chinese Investors; IDC to Spin Out HPC Group

January 19, 2017

US-based publishing and investment firm International Data Group, Inc. (IDG) will be acquired by a pair of Chinese investors, China Oceanwide Holdings Group Co., Ltd. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

  • arrow
  • Click Here for More Headlines
  • arrow
Share This