PORTLAND, Ore. – What with AMD, Apple, Dell, Dialog, Freescale, Fujitsu, HP, LSI, Microsoft, Motorola, MStar, Nvidia, Qualcomm, Samsung, STMicroelectronics and Texas Instruments all licensing ARM cores for everything from smartphones to tablets to basestations to servers, one might be led to believe the boast of ARM CEO Warren East that designers are choosing ARM because it is a no brainer.
The truth is that even though ARM is gaining market share in low-power embedded applications the company still has a long way to go to challenge the perennial microprocessor kings; that software compatibility hurts ARM as much as it helps; and that there are many vertical markets which will remain inaccessible to ARM cores merely because they are standardized.
Intel in particular has a 20-year head start over ARM, resulting in a maturity, sophistication and veneration that will be hard to displace by a 22-year-old. Intel's ecosystem of support chips, subsystems and software is unparalleled in the industry and addresses many more real-world issues than the low-power and small die size that makes ARM a no-brainer for many new designs. From the mobile space where Atom offers x86 compatibility that even ARM's most sophisticated cores cannot match, to the server space where Intel's Xeon already solves the most vexing issues facing datacenters today, Intel versus ARM remains a brain-teaser. For instance, the fast-growing cloud computing space uses virtualization to offer mobile device users access to applications running on servers for which Intel has a top-to-bottom solution – VTx – which securely links x86-based mobile devices with Xeon-based cloud computers. ARM, on the other hand, is still pursuing virtualization extensions that could offer similar integration of mobile devices into cloud computing realms.
"ARM is becoming more and more mature – its graduated from its initial light-weight processors for mobile devices to beefier processors like the A15 which can compete with Intel's Atom, but they are not yet in the Xeon class" said Sergis Mushell, principal research analyst at Gartner Inc. "The battle has just started – the relay gun has been fired, but the race has just begun."
ARM has recently started penetrating the wireless basestation market with a vengeance, driving a stake in the heart of MIPS Technologies, and landing lucrative new accounts such as for Freescale's popular QorIQ basestation processors.
However, standardizing on ARM cores may eventually hurt margins at TI, Freesale, LSI Logic and elsewhere, as they compete for the same sockets since one of ARM's advantages – interchangeable software – will also enable processor vendors to become interchangeable.
"ARM is now threatening the ecosystem of MIPS – going into basestations, going into networking, and gaining mainstream licensees like Texas Instruments, Freescale and LSI," said Mushell. "But all these vendors are going to be competing for the same piece of business, and it will be really easy to replace one vendor's ARM processor for one of the others, which could drive the ASP [average selling price] down significantly."
For many applications, proprietary architectures can actually be an advantage – witness HP's recent decision not to support ARM on Windows 8 tablets. Proprietary cores can also serve specific markets needs that do not fit into ARM's one-size-fit-all philosophy. For instance, Infineon's Tricore, Renesas' VH/RX and Atmel's AVR all serve specific market segments that will not be going away any time soon.
"Though it's true that the ARM ecosystem for embedded microprocessors and microcontrollers is growing at a blistering rate, there are applications – such as in automotive microcontrollers or networking microprocessors, where manufacturers have found it useful to maintain proprietary architectures," said Adib Ghubril, research director at Gartner.
The other dimension that ARM's "no brainer" argument is skirting is heterogeneous multi-cores. ARM currently has extensions aimed at addressing digital signal processing (DSP), vector processing and other specialized needs, but at least for now, chip designers are more likely be use an asymmetric architectures – an ARM core in combination with a non-ARM heterogeneous core – to meets their specific needs.
"And a new war is about to begin – the multicore wars – and here ARM will likely not emerge supremely victorious, because devices are taking on what we refer to as asymmetric architectures to meet requirements specific to end-applications," said Ghubril. "These asymmetric architectures combine heterogeneous cores together such that an ARM may be sitting next to a proprietary DSP."
The numbers tell the real story. Yes the ARM processor is used in a lot of devices, but as far as overall market share for all devices, it is a small player in the real world.
Besides, if it were a real threat, Intel would have bought them long ago.
Software developers are the judges for who is winning or won. I do not count intel out but iOS and android and the vast app ecosystem are saying arm is winning.
Even MS is putting enormous resources behind Windows 8/RT and Surface will be introduced on armh SOC 3 months ahead of x86... Just a shocking development!!
Over the years, ARM and x86 learned from each other and tried to adopt best of each others. Currently both of them are entering into each others territories. ARM into server and complex computing and x86 into mobile domain. Over the period, the differntiating factor of these architures will be more blurred.
MIPS is history from Lexra days and their bogus patent suites for unaligned instruction access. Also, HP is not a serious contender for tablets after their last hiccup on exiting the PC space and abandoning their tablet. PowerPC is not doing that well either, so why not adopt ARM? ARM is only the core, and that is licenced for 5 cents. TI, Freescale and others add significant peripherals, and around 1GHz, they are a better bet than Atom for programming at the bare-metal level (ie, not Windows legacy). ARM's annual turnover is chicken feed compared to Intel, and if Intel wanted to snuff the ISA, it would be easy to move to something else. Look at how people moved away from MIPS with a 64-bit solution, and how easy it would be to buy them.
I don't get why the article says ARM is just a 12 years old kid of Intel's block, at the real facts ARM1 was like 1984 project, so in facts it's 12 years younger Intel mate, but their story related because the older has not been licensed to Acorn to manufacture its (circa 1985) new line of computer workstations. In fact the first application run on it was ARX (a Unix-like OS for it), but never released due time to market issues.
The CPU architecture wars died in the late 90's when MOT drifted away from the 68K which forced Apple to create Rosetta that performed dynamic recoding to move users from 68K to PowerPC. Then Apple did it again to move from PowerPC to x86. And while you all may not realize it, they did it again in iOS move to ARM because the roots of iOS are in OS X. So, if the CPU ISA is no longer handcuffs to a developer, then you have to ask the question why did Apple choose ARM? It's not because of architecture but for some other reason such as flexibility of customization, or some such motivator.
Wow, guys. I don't think I've ever seen an article so full of incorrect historical information. I mean, it's normal for the suits at Gartner to not have any clue about technology, but I'd expect the editors here to at least check it out. Not the sort of thing I'm accustomed to seeing in this publication!
What planet are you on? There has been NO cross-pollenation of architectural features between x86 and ARM. Name one! Further, x86 has never made any significant inroads into the mobile world. They couldn't be more different.
ARM may eventually be able to compete in the low-end server world where x86 is king, but that's a long way off at best. In the high-end side of things, neither is likely to ever be seen there.
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