ARM's first 64-bit processors target servers, smartphones

ARM's first processor designs based on its 64-bit architecture will be released later this year

ARM will announce its first 64-bit processors later this year for servers and high-end smartphones, and is also taking steps to build up software support for the processor designs, said CEO Warren East earlier this week.

The first 64-bit processors will be licensed to device makers and based on the ARMv8 architecture, which was announced in October. The 64-bit processors will be in volume production by 2014, after which it will reach devices, East said.

The processors could lead to the introduction of the first 64-bit smartphones, which could deliver better performance compared to devices based on current ARM processors that are capable of only 32-bit addressing. The processors could also support a wider range of 64-bit applications in the Windows and Linux environments.

"The aim there is to target the high-end of the computing spectrum -- servers and high-end smartphones," East said. The processors have been assigned the code-names of Atlas and Apollo until the final versions are announced.

Most smartphones and tablets today use ARM processors, and the company is trying to make its way into the Intel-dominated server market. ARM develops processor architectures and designs and its licensees include Apple, Texas Instruments, Nvidia, Samsung and Qualcomm. The company already has four ARMv8-A 64-bit architectural licensees including Nvidia and AppliedMicro Circuits, and more will be announced later this year, East said.

An ARM presentation slide listed Nvidia as implementing the ARMv8-A in highly anticipated chips code-named Project Denver for smartphones, tablets, PCs and servers. Chip maker AppliedMicro last year showed a 64-bit chip running at 3GHz.

There is a gap of a few years between ARM introducing a processor and the design being implemented in chips. For example, ARM unveiled its 32-bit Cortex-A9 processor in 2007, and it started reaching tablets and smartphones last year. ARM in 2010 introduced its Cortex-A15 design, which is expected to reach a few devices later this year.

Smartphones will need 64-bit chips as the devices run more demanding applications like multimedia as device makers move to plug in larger memory blocks, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64. A move to 64-bit in smartphones is inevitable as mobile devices mostly come with up to 2GB of memory and ARM's current 32-bit processors support only up to 4GB, Brookwood said.

For servers, a 64-bit processor is a no-brainer as the applications and requirements are already there, Brookwood said. Servers require large memory blocks and many applications have already been written for 64-bit addressing.

ARM is pitching its processors to green data centers and server makers have already announced experimental systems with the Cortex-A9 processor. Hewlett-Packard has announced ARM-based server designs and Nvidia is mixing up its Tegra 3 chips and graphics processors in a Barcelona supercomputer.

ARM has some server-specific security and virtualization features in ARMv8, East said. The 64-bit processor will also be backward compatible and support applications written for previous ARM architectures.

ARM is also building software support to accelerate the adoption of its 64-bit processors in servers. A production version of Linux-based Ubuntu OS has already been released, and ARMv8 support is planned for Red Hat.

Looking forward in servers, ARM may have to tough task of unseating Intel, which has been offering x86 chips for years and dominates the server market, Brookwood said. Intel this year also entered the ARM's turf with the introduction of the 32-bit Medfield processor for smartphones.

Intel could come up with the 64-bit smartphone processor with a few tweaks, Brookwood said. However, ARM could be hard to shake as it has a dominating market presence, and the need for 64-bit in smartphones isn't dire.

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