Building on yesterday’s announcement with ARM and other ARM partners on GPU Acceleration, AMD announced an even greater partnership with ARM to develop processors using ARM cores.
Through the use of an integrated Cortex-A5 processor with dedicated SRAM, AMD will provide x86-based processors that support ARM’s TrustZone compute platforms. As a function within the Cortex-A processor family, ARM introduced TrustZone as a way to secure both the functional IP blocks within a mobile processor and the peripheral functions.
As in any electronic system, security can be accomplished through a number of ways, including hardware, software, or a combination of both. ARM’s TrustZone uses the latter method of combining hardware and software, which is typically the most effective solution.
Although the same functionality could be accomplished through other cores and resources that may already be available on or could be added to AMD’s existing platform, AMD indicated no effort to do so and only plans to support the TrustZone environment through the use of a separate but integrated ARM core citing the benefits of the power and performance efficiency of the ARM architecture.
Integration of the two processor architectures is not a simple task, however, because of the different instruct sets and the memory support, the ARM Cortex-A5 is a 32-bit core and the x86 is a 64-bt core, but AMD insisted that integration of the ARM core was the most effective method.
Processors featuring the ARM core and TrustZone compatibility will be available on select APUs beginning in 2013. AMD would not provide further product details, but the company’s performance Kaveri, low-power Kabini, and ultra low-power Temash platforms are scheduled for release in the 2013 timeframe. AMD will also be providing new development platforms in support of the new products.
With AMD’s adoption, the TrustZone environment will now be available for wide variety of platforms ranging from handsets to servers. AMD also noted potential in embedded applications. According to AMD, the company is already working with some ISV and OEM partners, but would not disclose names or product details.
Reading between the lines
While the TrustZone announcement seems a reasonable extension of the AMD and ARM relationship, I believe there is a much deeper meaning and many more announcements to come.
As AMD looks to expand its business model beyond PCs and servers, partnering with ARM could provide AMD with more processor design options to satisfy the requirements of a wide variety of applications, particularly embedded applications as championed by AMD’s new CEO, Rory Read, and management team. Other ARM partners, particularly Freescale and TI, are already aggressively pushing the ARM architecture throughout the embedded ecosystem with broad families of ARM-based products.
AMD would have the benefit of using both the ARM architecture for power sensitive applications and the x86 architecture for high-end computing solutions combined with industry leading graphics capabilities. An example in the medical industry would be using the ARM-based products for mobile monitoring devices and the x86-based products for imaging systems.
Under the TrustZone agreement, AMD will only acquire a license for the Cortex-A5 core, and this will not include access to the architecture details, which only a handful of other processor vendors like Marvell and Qualcomm possess. Although AMD would not comment of future efforts or product plans with ARM or other ARM processors, future announcements are likely because of the unique potential the ARM architecture offers AMD.
It is important to note that Intel took a similar step with the ARM architecture to target communications applications only to eventually sell the efforts to Marvell. However, AMD is not bound with the same manufacturing constraints that Intel was at the time and already utilizes some of the industry’s leading semiconductor foundries. A closer relationship between the AMD and ARM could be a defining point for AMD going forward.