Chip design firm ARM grabbed the spotlight at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week when Microsoft announced that its next Windows OS would work on the ARM architecture.
ARM processors go into most of the world's smartphones and tablets, and with Windows support, the company can now focus on the wider market for PCs, where it has virtually no presence. Nvidia also announced that it was building its first ARM-based chip, code-named Denver, for PCs and servers.
Despite the progress, ARM, which licenses its designs to chip makers, is keeping its focus on smartphones and tablets. The company's CEO, Warren East, sat down with the PC Advisor partner IDG News Service to discuss Windows, the PC market and future architecture developments.
IDGNS: What led Microsoft to port Windows to ARM?
East: Microsoft wanted to play in a much larger space than just PCs, in the world of internet-connected devices, and they can see that ARM is the processor that it is powering those ... devices. They see a necessity to port their operating system. It's good that they have eventually come to that conclusion. Microsoft has made a bold move.
IDGNS: With Windows, is ARM now targeting the PC market?
East: We never set out to target PCs. It's Intel turf and the Microsoft OS didn't run on ARM. It would be hugely expensive for frankly not much gain. If you look at ARM from a financial point of view, when somebody goes and buys a PC ... we are earning royalty on [components]. The only thing that's missing is the CPU ... probably selling for $40 to $50. While it's high value for us, the volumes of PCs total about 300 million units. What sort of share could ARM possibly get? It doesn't make a lot of financial sense for us.
IDGNS: When will Windows on ARM reach devices?
East: You'll have to talk to [Microsoft], because it is their programme.
IDGNS: What is the level of complexity involved in porting Windows to ARM?
East: I have been quite sympathetic that it's a very difficult problem for them to do and it's very costly. With 25 years of history behind Windows operating system and the PC, it isn't just a matter of porting a kernel and away you go. There's all applications, devices drivers, it's a lot of work. From Microsoft's point of view, you can understand why they wouldn't necessarily have done that before now.
IDGNS: Several Windows PCs and devices that ship today come with features such as 64-bit addressing, hardware-based multithreading, which ARM doesn't have yet. What kind of a strain does Windows put on ARM's chip design efforts?
East: Yes, we are a long way away from that today. The PC you refer to, [there's] 25 years of growing up where the hardware and software have been inextricably linked. There's no reason you can't have the same functionality without the hardware multithreading or without the 64-bit. It's just that because Intel [has] produced processors like that, Microsoft [has] used those features.
IDGNS: Are you looking at 64-bit in chip designs going ahead?
East: I think it is inevitable that will happen. We are a business and we have finite resources and we have to match the resources against the opportunities. Hitherto, we've decided it's not been sensible to have 64-bit programs. Extended memory addressing at 40 bits is in the latest Cortex-A15 ... but we haven't had the need for a 64-bit [arithmetic logic unit].
IDGNS: Chips now merge the elements of the central processing unit with graphics processing unit in a single piece of silicon. Are ARM's chip design efforts headed in that direction?
East: Well, yes. it's just a logical next thing to do. We spent six years licensing the Imagination [graphics] core ... we now have a different flavour, it's Mali. Because the ARM core and the Mali core are designed in the same camp, we can actually [share elements], which is keeping still separate processors, but it is allowing much closer communication. Is that becoming more urgent? Not necessarily, it's just a logical next thing to do.
IDGNS: What progress have you made in the server market?
East: It's coming. For the last two years we've been talking about it with the market because what's been going on is experimental work where people have been building servers based around chips that have been developed for smartphones. There's another stage to go, which is microprocessor cores that have been developed a little bit more with high-performance computing in mind. What I've been telling people is that the project's on track, but please don't expect ARM servers to move the dial before 2014. There's a whole software ecosystem that exists around servers, it's not in place for ARM yet and that has to be developed as well.
IDGNS: Nvidia talked about creating high-performance ARM cores for PCs and servers, which demand more power than mobile devices. What will matter to you more in chip design going forward?
East: Power, power, power. If you can solve the power problem, you can always run the thing faster. If you've got the power problem, you can't integrate multiple things on the same chip because it just gets too hot. Servers - the huge element of the cost is powering things and also cooling. If you can save half that power consumption ... you've quartered the cost of running. That's why we would always say power is more important than performance.