IBM licenses ARM's mobile processors for communications chips

IBM has licensed smartphone and tablet processor designs from ARM

IBM has licensed smartphone and tablet processor designs from ARM, which will be used in new communications and networking gear.

With the new licenses, IBM has the "capability to add mobile processing to complement our high-performance networking and mobile 'front-end' businesses -- tablets and handsets," said Michael Corrado, an IBM spokesman, in an e-mail.

IBM has licensed ARM's Cortex-A15, Cortex-A12, Cortex-A7 processors, which are largely for use in smartphones and tablets. IBM did not directly comment on whether it would build smartphones and tablets based on the chips, but said it will make communications and networking gear as it prepares for the "convergence of networking and consumer applications," Corrado said.

IBM has been an ARM licensee for 13 years and the deal is an extension of that partnership. IBM already makes ARM-based chips in its foundries and the companies have also partnered on chip research and manufacturing technologies.

"It certainly could be part of a larger network-to-the-endpoint offerings," said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

IBM could also make networking chips in its foundries for its customers based on ARM's intellectual property, King said.

But the new 32-bit cores licensed by IBM have been used more in mobile devices than networking equipment. Companies like Broadcom and Cavium have instead turned to ARM's new 64-bit ARM Cortex-A57 and A53 cores for use in networking gear. The 64-bit processor designs can be tweaked to handle network tasks like packet inspection and security.

IBM won't build smartphones and tablets for consumers, King said. But the new processors could be used in communications equipment for industrial customers, he said.

As an example, he said the processors could be used in point-of-sale systems, which are becoming increasingly portable.

IBM has also licensed the Mali-450 graphics processing unit, which is not ARM's most advanced graphics processor design. The extremely low-power Cortex-M0 processor was also licensed by IBM.

The new ARM licenses won't have an effect on IBM's Power core for low-power chips.

"Our Power IP will continue to play a key role in this segment," Corrado 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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