AMD adds ARM processor as it looks beyond x86

AMD adds the Cortex-A5 processor with TrustZone technology to boost security on x86 chips

Advanced Micro Devices on Wednesday said it will integrate an ARM processor with upcoming x86 chips, marrying two rival architectures and ending more than a year of speculation around AMD's plans to use ARM technology.

Starting next year, AMD chips will integrate ARM's Cortex-A5 processor with TrustZone security technology. ARM processors are used in most of the smartphones and tablets that ship today, and TrustZone is found in all its Cortex-A processors.

TrustZone is a set of instructions that help secure mobile devices, mobile payments and streamed content. Netflix streams to some mobile devices are protected using TrustZone. AMD has signed a license with ARM for the Cortex-A5 processor, it said.

The integration of an ARM processor is one of the first big steps from AMD in a plan to overhaul its chip design strategy. Under a new management team, AMD said in February it would change its design methodology to allow the integration of third-party intellectual property, such as that from ARM.

AMD competes with Intel in the x86 processor market, where it has long struggled to significantly increase its market share. Intel and AMD both have virtually no presence in the tablet market, which is dominated by ARM. Rumors about AMD's plans to sign an ARM license have spread as growth in the PC market slowed and AMD plotted its next steps.

AMD has ambitions in the tablet market, but a spokesman said its use of the Cortex-A5 will be solely for security purposes. AMD has expressed confidence in its x86 chips and graphics processors and is scheduled to ship a new x86 processor for tablets, code-named Hondo, which combines a CPU and graphics processor on a single chip.

AMD's partnership with ARM could expand in the future to cover a wider range of technologies, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

"Given that AMD does now have a relationship with ARM, there might be other shoes they could drop over the coming months," Brookwood said. "We may start to see that kind of behavior where AMD gets important pieces of technology for its products from ARM."

The integration of TrustZone boosts the security features on AMD chips, Brookwood said. TrustZone is on billions of ARM-based smartphones and tablets, and AMD will extend use of the technology to PCs.

The ARM license is also AMD's way to catch up with Intel, which is integrating security features gained from its acquisition of McAfee last year. Intel has more resources to develop technologies internally or acquire companies for technology enhancements, and now AMD is partnering to keep up.

Many new smartphones ship with ARM's Cortex-A9 processor, but AMD may have chosen the older Cortex-A5 design to match its needs, Brookwood said. The newer Cortex-A9 processors are more powerful but take up more space, Brookwood said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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