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Virtualization: Article

AMD to Build 64-Bit ARM Chips, Says It’s an Inflection Point

AMD has never veered from its x86 course before but believes its shift will be “seminal”

AMD has hinted for months that it was going to adopt the ARM architecture and last week in the middle of a blackout that turned New York and the stock market dark it disclosed its plans to make ARM's smartphone and tablet widgetry into a server platform for use in the cloud and mighty data centers the likes of Amazon's.

AMD has never veered from its x86 course before but believes its shift will be "seminal."

CEO Rory Read said, "There's no doubt the cloud changes everything. The cloud truly is the killer app that's unlocking the future."

In making the announcement the company recalled the sweeping success of its so-called x64 Opteron server design that sealed the coffin of Intel's Itanium chip nearly a decade ago, forced Intel to copy the junior member of the processor duopoly and briefly gave little AMD server leadership.

It figures what it did once it can do again - provided it lasts long enough to produce the thing.

AMD is suffering a serious shortage of money and is currently slashing about 15% of its workforce to contain costs. Against falling revenues, it's only got $1.48 billion in the bank and debts of $2.04 billion.

It also needs to avoid its usual production problems.

It estimates it will take it until 2014 - figure maybe 18 months if not three to five years - to create a 64-bit version of the ARM, a highly integrated multi-core System-on-a-Chip (SoC) optimized for dense energy-efficient server farms.

AMD says the newfangled Opteron processor will use the SeaMicro Freedom supercompute fabric it acquired when it bought the microserver start-up for $334 million in March.

The SeaMicro interconnect currently supports Intel's x86 Atom and Xeon chips and AMD indicated the fabric will be made to support Opteron-, ARM- and x86-based processors so that hundreds or even thousands of processor clusters can be linked together in the name of energy efficiency and cost consciousness.

Evidently AMD's so-called "ambidextrous architecture" is supposed to span both the x86 and ARM ecosystems.

AMD said it will be strategically collaborating with ARM, which planned to have a 64-bit server design ready by 2014. The widgetry was subsequently identified as the Cortex-A50. AMD will be using ARM's off-the-shelf cores, not designing its own, for roughly 1.8% of sales.

Other A50 licensees include Broadcom, Calxeda, HiSilicon, Samsung and STMicroelectronics.

Amazon, Dell, Facebook and Red Hat turned up at last week's announcement and ARM suggested that AMD would have a "transformational effect."

Dell claimed ARM could be "a serious player in areas like web front-end servers and as a worker node in a Hadoop environment. AMD's opportunity is to deliver serious value in performance-per-dollar and performance-per watt-where low-power server platforms running massively scale-out workloads can shine. The availability of 64-bit ARM solutions is an essential milestone needed to accelerate enterprise adoption of this technology."

Intel is putting its money on trying to match the ARM with the Atom. It's planning to have its own 22nm Avoton microserver SoC ready next year. It will reportedly use two-eight Silvermont Atom cores, dissipate 5W-20W, and integrate SATA, gigabit Ethernet, USB and DDR3/DDR3L support.

So AMD will still be hounded by the Intel goliath along with other ARM rivals and, since microservers are regarded as a niche market, potentially worth maybe 5% of the overall server market in the next few years, one might be skeptical about how much revenue AMD can derive from it. ARM CEO Warren East, however, claims ARM microservers could be 20% of the data center market by 2020.

Worldwide PC sales were down 8% year-over-year in Q3 and AMD doesn't have much of a server footprint anymore or a mobile one.

One can only assume that AMD might ultimately enter the tablet market.

HP, still the biggest of the server vendors for all its agony, is teamed with Calxeda on ARM-based microservers and appears to be backing AMD as well.

Calxeda, which intends to be able to scale up to 100,000 nodes in a single cluster without having to add any external switches and has three 64-bit chips on its roadmap that could produce a million node cluster, is ironically financed by Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), which now owns AMD's old ovens, the Globalfoundries chip fab.

Applied Micro Circuits (AMC) is also in this race.

And it looks like Red Hat has a chief ARM architect on staff, one Jon Masters, who says the company will share its Linux expertise with AMD and support ARM in a future release of Fedora, the freebie version of its distribution.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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