In a move that should add a few more drops of perspiration to furrowed brows at Intel and AMD, ARM today unveiled details of its ARMv8 architecture, which will extend its ecosystem into the 64-bit world of enterprise computing, perhaps gaining footing in Windows environments.
ARM's push to power 64-bit computing means its rivals not only have to struggle to catch up in the smartphone and tablet spaces while protecting their consumer-oriented desktop territory, but will also have to tighten their defense in server rooms, data centers, workstations, and anywhere else that 32 bits just isn't enough.
ARM already has an impressive track record for baking energy efficiency and security features into its chip blueprints -- traits that should appeal to enterprise customers. Intel and AMD have time on their hands, at least; enterprise prototypes running the 64-bit ARM architecture aren't expected until 2014.
One arguable disadvantage for ARM's architecture: It's based on RISC, not x86, meaning it has not been Windows-friendly. ARM said that ARMv8 will initially target a range of open source operating systems (Apple's iOS and Linux already do ARM), applications, and third-party tools. However, there are signs that Windows will, down the road, run on the ARM architecture. For example, the Metro portion of Windows 8 -- meaning newer apps -- will run on ARM.
Redmond hasn't fully thrown its support behind ARM, and it's unclear whether Microsoft is going to stick it out with Intel and latch on to its forthcoming Atom. Still, ARM's move to 64-bit architecture has evidently caught Microsoft's attention. "ARM is an important partner for Microsoft," said KD Hallman, general manager at Microsoft, in a somewhat noncommittal statement. "The evolution of ARM to support a 64-bit architecture is a significant development for ARM and for the ARM ecosystem. We look forward to witnessing this technology's potential to enhance future ARM-based solutions."
The ARMv8 architecture consists of two main execution states: AArch64 and AArch32. The AArch64 execution state introduces a new instruction set, A64 for 64-bit processing; AArch32 supports the existing ARM instruction set. According to ARM, ARMv8 will support or extend capabilities found in the current ARMv7 architecture, including NEON-advanced SIMD -- a combined 64- and 128-bit instruction set for accelerating media and signal-processing applications -- and TrustZone virtualization.
That TrustZone technology represents another advantage for ARM. It's a set of baked-in security extensions that deliver hardware-based access control through two virtual processors. TrustZone enables individual application cores to switch between states, depending on whether it's operating in a trusted or untrusted environment. The technology is suited for such enterprise-oriented applications as secure near-field communications, digital rights management, and accessing cloud-based documents.
ARM also has demonstrated its grasp on injecting energy efficiency into its chip architecture, critical not only on battery-powered mobile devices, but also in data centers as companies struggle to contain the costs of powering and cooling machines in the face of increasing demand for compute and storage. ARM's announcement regarding ARMv8 cited praise from customers (in the form of canned quotes) to that effect: "The current growth trajectory of data centers, driven by the viral explosion of social media and cloud computing, will continue to accelerate. The ability to handle this data increase with energy-efficient solutions is vital," said Vinay Ravuri, vice president and general manager of AppliedMicro's processor business unit. "The ARM 64-bit architecture provides the right balance of performance, efficiency, and cost to scale to meet these growing demands."
Another potential boon for would-be ARM adopters in the enterprise: The ARMv8 architecture will work across 32- and 64-bit application areas, according to the company, thus enabling high-end computing while supporting backward compatibility and migration for existing software.
ARM has already made the ARM compiler and Fast Models with ARMv8 support available to select partners. ARM will disclose processors based on ARMv8 during 2012, with consumer and enterprise prototype systems expected in 2014.
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