AMD Teams Up with ARM to Transform the Datacenter Industry

AMD ARMs Itself with ARM, x86 and Microserver Technologies to Get Ready for the Future of Datacenter

by Anton Shilov
10/29/2012 | 01:49 PM

Advanced Micro Devices and ARM Holdings on Monday announced initiative that promises to change the datacenter industry. Under the terms of the agreement, AMD will offer datacenter-class microprocessors based on both ARM and x86 architectures. The first AMD Opteron chips based on the ARM architecture and AMD/SeaMicro Freedom fabric are projected to emerge in 2014.

 

"AMD led the data center transition to mainstream 64-bit computing with AMD64, and with our ambidextrous strategy we will again lead the next major industry inflection point by driving the widespread adoption of energy-efficient 64-bit server processors based on both the x86 and ARM architectures. Through our collaboration with ARM, we are building on AMD's rich IP portfolio, including our deep 64-bit processor knowledge and industry-leading AMD SeaMicro Freedom supercompute fabric, to offer the most flexible and complete processing solutions for the modern data center," said Rory Read, president and chief executive officer at AMD.

AMD Set to Design 64-Bit ARM Server Processors, Will Not Drop x86

AMD's Opteron microprocessors based on x86 and ARM architectures will integrate high-performance production-proven Freedom fabric originally designed at SeaMicro. The Freedom can connect thousands of processor cores, memory, storage and input/output traffic with up to 1.28Tb/s (160GB/s) speed. SeaMicro’s fabric supports multiple processor instruction sets, which makes it compatible with both AMD x86 and ARM technologies.

The integration of fabric into central processing units and eventually enterprise-class accelerated processing units will allow AMD to address different server markets with more or less unified offerings, which will offer different levels of performance and power consumption. AMD does not seem to have plans to put x86 and ARM cores into the same server chips, but will develop common building blocks that will be used for both x86 and ARM system-on-chips/microprocessors as well as various accelerated processing units. Essentially, AMD plans to integrate its leading-edge stream processing capabilities, advanced Freedom fabrics and other innovative technologies into ARM-based server chips to quickly and easily become a leading player on the market that is about to start a quick growth.

AMD stresses that x86 architecture is not going to disappear from servers or PCs in the coming years. Therefore, the chip designer will continue to develop x86 Opterons in addition to ARM Opteron products. It is also necessary to note that AMD does not rule out any possibilities to create a server chip based on its Jaguar ultra low-power x86 microarchitecture. It is possible that in the future AMD's Opteron lineup will include processors based on three different architectures: high-performance x86 (Steamroller, Excavator), ultra low-power x86 (Jaguar) and high-performance ARM (ARMv8 and successors).

"Over the past decade the computer industry has coalesced around two high-volume processor architectures – x86 for personal computers and servers, and ARM for mobile devices. Over the next decade, the purveyors of these established architectures will each seek to extend their presence into market segments dominated by the other. The path on which AMD has now embarked will allow it to offer products based on both x86 and ARM architectures, a capability no other semiconductor manufacturer can likely match," observed Nathan Brookwood, research fellow at Insight 64.

 

Offering different products with different architectural peculiarities for different markets is a part of AMD’s ambidextrous strategy. It remains to be seen how successful will AMD be with completely different offerings and whether internal competition between ARM and x86 [and potential cannibalization of the latter by the former] will do more harm than good for AMD.

Datacenter Owners and Software Designers Eager to Port Programs to ARM Architecture

Many large server customers find that they do not necessarily take advantage of all the performance their servers have. In some cases, the cost of a datacenter equipment and hardware equals to the cost of electricity it consumes throughout its lifetime. Therefore, for the majority of datacenter owners cutting power consumption is a crucial thing. Although server software in general is not compatible with ARMv8 64-bit architecture, many big server customers, such as Facebook, are eager to port their apps onto non-standard platforms themselves to save on energy costs.

AMD claims that it is working with several hardware OEMs and numerous software makers to ensure that there is the right eco-system for x86 and ARM server central processing units. AMD and its partners believe that software developers will be quick with porting their programs to ARMv8 64-bit architecture and the situation with slow transition to x86-64 will not repeat itself.

Rory Read, chief executive officer of AMD, believes that ARM-based servers are going to capture a double-digit percent of server market in three to five years. Mr. Read’s optimism regarding ARM-based servers is shared by numerous high-ranking executive around the industry. Actual penetration of ARM into the commercial server segment will depend on availability of compatible software and hardware. But software makers will only port their applications in case there is a market for them, which means actual deployments. So, at the end of the day, the success of ARM and AMD in servers depends on software developers again…