AMD ARM APU is a Pipedream for Now; Collaboration on API's Only
5/2/2011 by: Marcus Pollice
While discussing the outstanding financial results of ARM Holding plc for the first quarter of 2011 with EETimes, ARM CEO Warren East made remarks regarding possible cooperation with AMD. According to East such cooperation would make sense for AMD. As a now fabless semiconductor company, AMD would have to optimize cost and efficiency and ARM would be a natural fit for these targets according to the company representative. The speculation has also been fueled by the fact that a senior ARM executive will hold a keynote speech on AMDs Fusion '11 Summit.
Here is the full quote of one of East's statements: "AMD is a successful company selling microprocessors. ARM is in the business of licensing microprocessor designs. It is perfectly natural that we should have been trying to sell microprocessor designs to AMD for about the last ten years. Hitherto we haven't been successful." East continues "AMD has signaled they are going through a rethink of their strategy, and that must provide a heightened opportunity for ARM. They might use ARM microprocessors in the future and you've got to expect that we would be trying to persuade them of that."
It took AMD two whole days to respond in the form of a PCWorld article citing John Taylor, director of client product and software marketing at AMD. According to Taylor, AMD currently has no plans to acquire an ARM license. He continues that AMDs strong CPU and graphics technology will be employed to design chips for tablets. One of these designs codenamed Krishna has only recently taped out.
Basically this means, AMD will use a chip based on the x86 microarchitecture currently employed in a majority of PCs and notebooks for a tablet design. Even their current generation APUs based on the Ontario core is slated to be used in a handful tablets in a specialized 5W SKU. However, the most prominent hype revolves around Apples iPad and Android based devices like Motorola's Xoom or Samsung's galaxy Tab as well as RIMs Playbook which use processors based on the ARM architecture. Also the majority of smartphones employ ARM processors.
The actual reason for inviting ARM to their Fusion conference is that ARM is now actively pursuing to use OpenCL as a general API for GPU computing. While NVIDIA also has its own API called CUDA, for AMD growing support for OpenCL is important to leverage the current trend of GPU computing in some applications. Especially for their current low-power Fusion APUs, which are beating Intel Atom by combining simplistic general purpose x86 cores coupled with powerful GPU cores, this new paradigm makes a lot of sense to unleash their full potential. With Llano APUs, AMD will pair a four year old CPU architecture (K10 "Barcelona", K10.5 "Shanghai") with a contemporary GPU (400-core Radeon HD 5000 part) and go head to head against Sandy Bridge. Given the GPU performance, we're not surprised to see a leaked video showing Llano beating Sandy Bridge.
In general, while AMD now publicly declined incorporating ARM technology anytime soon, it should be noted that the idea still could make sense in the future. It entirely depends on the development of certain markets though. While the PC is currently in firm grasp of x86, this may very well change in the future. Apple repeatedly demonstrated that a full microarchitecture switch is not at all that difficult than Intel might want us to believe. Microsoft also has a lot of experience with other architectures, even though their x86 products are the most prominent. The Windows NT kernel already ran on DECs Alpha and is still supported on Intels Itanium. The Xbox 360 includes a PowerPC CPU and runs a modified NT kernel as well. On mobile phone Microsoft has been dealing with various ARM iterations for a while and the software maker actually plans to release an ARM-version of its upcoming Windows 8 operating system.
With NVIDIA working on a ARM-based CPU called Project Denver targeting PCs slated for 2013, a PC including an ARM core sounds very possible in the not too distant future. But at this point it's probably smart on behalf of AMD to take a wait and see approach. Battling over razor-thin margins for smartphone chips while competing with at least three other vendors might not make all too much sense. The tablet market still needs to take off and show it's not only a small glare like Netbooks were a few years ago. After considering all these factors, AMD could still license ARM technology and incorporate it in their offerings - ARM would happily hand them a contract to sign.
AMD, Advanced Micro Devices, ARM, ARM Holdings, John Taylor, Warren East, Fusion 11, AFDS, RIM, Playbook, iPad, Xoom, Motorola, OpenCL, nVidia, CUDA, Fusion APU, llano, Ontario, Cortex-A9, Cortex-A15, Mali, Mali GPU, Mali GPGPU, GPGPU
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