AMD trying to bridge the gap between x86 and ARM

AMD CTO Mark Papermaster said chip design needs to be flexible so devices get more features like voice, touch, and gesture recognition

Advanced Micro Devices is taking steps to bridge the gap between x86 and ARM processors and hopes to build a foundation from which programs will operate on mobile devices like tablets independent of architecture, the company's CTO, Mark Papermaster, said in an interview.

The company is espousing the development of tools that blur the line between processor and accelerator engines inside a chip, Papermaster said. Programmers will be able to write a program once, which will then be executable either across x86 or ARM CPUs, or other graphics processors and accelerators tied to security, video, or data compression.

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The ability to bring a variety of processing engines and programs will result in higher levels of realism and interactivity on tablets, Papermaster said. A combination of client and cloud will bring real-time interaction, and the processing engines will be needed to bring natural interactivity through touch, voice, and gestures, Papermaster said. The CPU is just one engine, and devices will require more processing units to handle the massive amounts of incoming data.

AMD is already taking steps in that direction by opening up its chip design to support external processing cores. For example, the company in June said it would combine its x86 processor with ARM's Cortex-A5 processor with TrustZone security technology on a single chip for tablets and PCs. ARM and x86 are rival processor architectures for tablets, servers, PCs and smartphones, but AMD's chip-design methodology is radically different compared to Intel, which is building on-chip technologies in-house.

Nothing precludes an x86 chip and ARM processor from being on a single chip, Papermaster said. But he didn't say whether AMD would release a chip that combines an x86 core with a full-fledged ARM core.

AMD's base chip design revolves around its x86 chips and graphics processors, and the company has repeatedly expressed confidence in its current chip design. The company later this year is scheduled to ship a new x86 processor code-named Hondo for tablets, which combines a CPU and graphics processor on a single chip. AMD's x86 chips will integrate ARM's Cortex-A5 processor design starting next year.

"We will be partnering more to realize this vision. For security we could have gone alone or with the industry," Papermaster said. AMD wants to work with the industry to develop a common specification that makes it easier to mix and match CPUs, graphics processors, accelerators, and other processing units, Papermaster said.

AMD in June led the formation of the HSA Foundation, which has the goal to provide an open specification under which software can be written once and deployed in a cost-effective manner across multiple hardware configurations. Other members in HSA Foundation include Texas Instruments, MediaTek, ARM, and Imagination Technologies.

The goal behind the specification is to abstract the multiple hardware layers and provide the ability for programmers to write an application just once for deployment across multiple processing units in chips, Papermaster said. That should make it easier for programmers to write applications, Papermaster said.

AMD is also developing next-generation x86 CPU cores for PCs and tablets. AMD at the ongoing Hot Chips conference is providing more details on the Jaguar and Steamroller CPU core, which will be used in upcoming tablets and PCs starting next year. AMD is trying to double the CPU speed with each new generation while reducing power consumption, Papermaster 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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