Broadcom kicks off the 64-bit ARM stampede

Every chip developer not named Intel is rushing to make ARM useful outside of smartphones and tablets.

Last week, Broadcom announced plans for a new CPU core based on 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture with server-class performance for network function virtualization (NFV), with virtualized accelerators for networking, communications, storage and security applications.

But that's just one of what The Linley Group calls a stampede of ARM products for use outside of the traditional ARM devices, like smartphones and tablets. The semiconductor research firm recently held its Processor Conference in the Silicon Valley where ARM talk took up quite a bit of bandwidth.

A number of firms have announced dual instruction set architectures (ISAs), meaning ARM and another chipset co-existing side-by-side. AppliedMicro is making an ARM/PowerPC processor, as is Freescale and LSI while AMD has an x86/ARM chip called Hierofalcon for the embedded market.

However, Linley doesn't believe this will last as it's too expensive to validate software on two architectures like that. Eventually, it will come down to one, and that will be ARM.

The original push for 64-bit ARM was the microserver market, like HP's Moonshot. Those servers would be used in applications where a Xeon was overkill and an ARM, with a fraction of the power draw, would be more than enough CPU horsepower.

But now the new push is on networking and communications. An attendee of the show noted on the LinkedIn semiconductor group that ARM is becoming the standard for software development and on the low end, while the venerable MIPS architecture competes for high-end networking. A number of vendors, like Synopsys, Xtensa, Andes and CEVA all announced something involving an ARM license, like controller and DPS cores.

Now for those who have forgotten, or never knew, the push to 64-bit is important because of memory access. Older 32-bit processors were limited to just 4GB of addressable memory. It's easy to say "just 4GB," forgetting that 32-bit x86 processors came out in 1987 and that kind of memory was unthinkable at the time. Now it's too little, especially for a server. So to make ARM viable on the server, it must be 64-bit.

The thing is pretty much all of these chips, like Apple's A7, aren't true 64-bit. They can address a lot more then 4GB of memory but they fall a little short of a 64-bit register. Still, it's enough to build the momentum until ARM officially introduces a true 64-bit core sometime in late 2014 or early 2015.

I don't see these chips so much competing with Intel as complimenting it. Intel makes a lot more silicon than just CPUs and undoubtedly there will be a little competition. Big with the advent of big data and the Internet of Everything, a lot of knowledge is going to have to be applied to all of that network traffic, and these chips will be suited to do just that.

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