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ARM introduces 64-bit processors for phones, tablets and servers

ARM rolls out Cortex-A57 and A53 processors, which could appear in servers and smartphones in 2014 or later

ARM on Tuesday introduced its first 64-bit Cortex-A50 series processor designs as the company tries to preserve its dominance in smartphones and tablets while catching up with Intel in servers.

The new ARM processors, Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53, deliver higher performance at either the same or lower power levels compared to ARM processors today, said Ian Forsyth, product manager at ARM. The improved performance is key with mobile devices handling applications such as video and servers processing an increasing number of Web transactions.

More importantly, the processors deliver 64-bit support, which enables a new range of hardware capabilities including more memory. The new processors also boast virtualization support, error correction, security capabilities and better floating point performance, Forsyth said. The processor designs will offer a range of new features and capabilities to mobile devices and servers while balancing performance with power consumption.

For example, the hardware-level security features can be used to authorize mobile transactions without additional tools. Also, current systems with the new ARM processors are being configured to support up to 64GB of memory, Forsyth said. ARM processors with 32-bit support have a ceiling of 4GB of memory.

ARM licenses architecture and processor designs to chip companies, which then make the chips that go into tablets, smartphones and servers. The first Cortex A50-series chips could be available in late 2013, after which companies can start making products. Servers may be the first products to reach the market, and some chip partners are aggressively looking at high-end smartphones and tablets.

"Smartphone is a little bit further off," Forsyth said.

Calxeda and Advanced Micro Devices have already announced they would license the 64-bit processor design from ARM and will sell ARM-based server processors in 2014. Samsung, Broadcom, HiSilicon and STMicroelectronics have also licensed Cortex-A50 designs from ARM. Samsung has licensed both the Cortex-A57 and A53 cores, Forsyth said.

The Cortex-A57 is a "big core" and is targeted at servers, high-performance tablets and "superphones," Forsyth said. The processor can deliver up to three times more performance compared to existing ARM processors at the same power consumption. Depending on the chip's clock speed and number of cores, the processor could also consume less energy than existing ARM processors.

The Cortex-A57 can be configured with up to 16 cores right now and will scale to even more cores for servers in the future, Forsyth said.

ARM dominates in smartphones and tablets, but is aiming to make its mark in the server market ruled by x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. There is growing interest in ARM servers as an energy-efficient way to handle large numbers of Web requests such as in search or social networks. Dell and Hewlett-Packard already offer prototype ARM-based servers for testing to customers looking to deploy ARM servers to cut energy bills. However, Intel is also tweaking its low-power Atom processors to work in cloud servers and will release new Atom S-series chips for microservers later this year.

ARM's new Cortex-A53 is a small core that essentially delivers the same performance as the Cortex-A9 processor used in smartphones and tablets today, Forsyth said. However, the core is 40 percent smaller in design, which could enable more compact and more power-efficient chips, Forsyth said. The Cortex-A53 processors could go into smartphones and tablets, and has an edge over existing ARM processors with 64-bit support.

Licensees will be able to mix and match Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53 processors. For example, in servers the Cortex-A57 cores could handle a large volume of transactions, while the power-efficient A53 cores could do the quick processing of a transaction when servers are idle, Forsyth said.

ARM is pitching the concept called "Big.Little" in which lower-power cores are mixed with high-performance cores to provide balanced computing. For example, a smartphone could have high-performance cores to handle demanding applications, with low-power cores to handle lower-level tasks like phone calls.

The new Cortex processors are based on the ARMv8 architecture, which was announced in October last year. The new chips will succeed the Cortex-A15 processor, which is just reaching the market in devices such as Google's Nexus 10, which was announced this week. Companies including Nvidia, Cavium and AppliedMicro have licensed the ARMv8 architecture to make their own processor designs.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is [email protected]


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