AMD's new 64-bit ARM board points way to x86 coexistence

AMD's 64-bit server development board has the company's first ARM processors

Advanced Micro Devices is moving closer to a motherboard design that will accept both x86 and ARM chips with the shipment of its first 64-bit ARM board.

The Opteron A1100-Series developer hardware is an uncased computer costing $2,999, and aimed at programmers who want to write applications and drivers for AMD's unreleased ARM servers, which are expected to become available by early next year.

This is the first ARM-based system released by AMD, which by 2016 hopes to ship servers in which x86 and ARM chips could coexist. The effort to unite x86 and ARM, called Project Skybridge, involves the development of a motherboard to which customers can attach chips based on either architecture.

AMD already sells PCs, tablets and server chips based on the x86 architecture, and is making ARM chips for servers and embedded products. With Skybridge, AMD hopes to bring x86 and ARM into one server and provide more flexibility to customers who want to switch between architectures.

The board is a stepping stone for developers to write software and develop hardware and components that could ultimately be used in Skybridge-based servers, said Karl Freund, vice president of marketing and product management, at AMD's server unit.

Based on user feedback, boards like this one could help contribute to designs of Skybridge servers and beyond, Freund said.

For example, users can play with networking, security and storage features that could be common across the upcoming ARM server and Project Skybridge designs, Freund said.

The hardware and software infrastructure will also mature faster by the time Project Skybridge products are out, Freund said.

The growing interest in ARM processors stems from its low-power characteristics, more efficient in some web-hosting scenarios. ARM is also seen as an alternative to Intel's x86 server chips, which dominate data centers.

The board has an AMD Opteron A1100 processor -- nicknamed Seattle -- with up to eight cores based on ARM's Cortex-A57 processor design. It has DDR3 and DDR4 memory channels with error correction, two 10-Gigabit Ethernet ports, eight PCI-Express 3.0 lanes and eight SATA lanes in which to attach storage. Other features include a data compression co-processor and a security layer that authenticates users and encrypts and decrypts data. The security layer -- called TrustZone -- is expected to be common feature across AMD's x86 and ARM processors.

While the early board will not support specifications from the HSA Foundation, an AMD-led organization developing open-source programming tools to harness the joint computing power of CPUs and graphics processors, future ARM server chips will support the specs, Freund said.

The board ships with software including the LAMP stack -- Red Hat Fedora Linux, Apache web server, MySQL database and PHP tools. The board also supports Java 7 and 8, which don't yet have native support for parallel acceleration across CPUs and graphics processors. The acceleration can be added to Java virtual machines only through extra layers of code. AMD and Oracle are collaborating on an OpenJDK project called Project Sumatra, which will bring native CPU-GPU parallel execution to ARM servers with Java 9, which is due next year.

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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Agam Shah

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