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Is the end nigh for x86?

With Intel Corp. (INTC) thrashing its foes in processes and die shrinks, it might be premature to say that the end of the x86 complex instruction set computer (CISC) architecture is drawing near.  But it's equally hard to deny that ARM Holdings plc's (LON:ARM) ubiquitous licensed reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture is today drawing neck-and-neck with x86.

I. AMD to Build ARM Processing Cores

Each architecture is king of its own market; x86 rules the PC world, ARM rules the world of mobile chips.

But this week marked a key shift in the balance of power, with Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD) -- the other major maker of x86 PC CPUs -- announcing it would be rolling out 64-bit ARM processors.

The news that AMD was contemplating ARM wasn't exactly new.  AMD first let leak that it was licensing the ARM instruction set last year.  But at the time it was unclear whether AMD was simply going to leverage ARM for a power-sipping coprocessor or go full-out with a discrete ARM central processing unit.

AMD Opteron
AMD will release 64-bit Opteron chips in 2014. [Image Source: AMD]

The company resoundingly answered that question this week.

In a press release the company writes:

In a bold strategic move, AMD will design 64-bit ARM® technology-based processors in addition to its x86 processors for multiple markets, starting with cloud and data center servers. AMD’s first ARM technology-based processor will be a highly-integrated, 64-bit multicore System-on-a-Chip (SoC) optimized for the dense, energy-efficient servers that now dominate the largest data centers and power the modern computing experience. The first ARM technology-based AMD Opteron™ processor is targeted for production in 2014 and will integrate the AMD SeaMicro Freedom™ supercompute fabric, the industry’s premier high-performance fabric.

The news is significant particularly in its language.  By "multiple markets" AMD is making it clear that while this is not a consumer PC chip announcement, it is not ruling out a transition to ARM in the future.

II. ARM Renaissance is Dawning 

The announcement comes at an important time for ARM's entrance into the server and personal computer market.  Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) is launching Windows Server 2012, the first Windows enterprise operating system to offer ARM core support.  Both Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ) and Dell, Inc. (DELL) -- two of the world's top three server vendors -- have major ARM-based offerings in the pipeline.  Both OEMs praised AMD's ARM announcement.

"In order to handle evolving workloads, business demands and the information explosion, enterprises are looking for flexible compute solutions that drive optimal performance and reduced energy consumption," said Paul Santeler, vice president and general manager, Hyperscale Business Unit, Industry Standard Servers and Software at HP "As part of HP's Pathfinder Program, AMD and HP are continuing their decade-long relationship to innovate power-efficient computing with the development of a rich ecosystem of highly energy-efficient, dense server technology."
Calxeda dense server
HP is currently cooking up low-power ARM servers. [Image Source: HP]

Jimmy Pike, vice president and senior fellow of the Dell Data Center Solutions group adds, "With its planned 64-bit ARM solutions, AMD brings the experience of a proven enterprise CPU provider to the ARM ecosystem.  ARM has the promise of being a serious player in areas like web front-end servers and as a worker node in a Hadoop environment.  AMD's opportunity is to deliver serious value in performance-per-dollar and performance-per watt-where low-power server platforms running massively scale out workloads can shine. The availability of 64-bit ARM solutions is an essential milestone needed to accelerate enterprise adoption of this technology."

III. Intel: It's Getting Lonely Around Here

In a way a transition to ARM makes more sense for AMD.  With the recent Piledriver release AMD has further targeted heavily multi-threaded/multi-core users (e.g. cloud serving/virtualization services).  Such loads don't typically require as powerful a discrete processing core, making them the perfect target for ARM cores.  And given AMD's die shrink lag behind Intel its current power performance is pretty poor on a per-chip basis (although competitive on a per-performance basis in heavily threaded applications); the power-efficient ARM base could be just what the doctor ordered.

Soon, Intel may be the only x86 chipmaker. [Image Source: Reuters]

It might be too soon to call this the death knell of x86, but the news from AMD could mean "and then there was one."

If Intel, in the long term, becomes the sole x86 vendor, it will have a tremendous load on its shoulders.  Intel is an incredibly competitive company.  But the question is whether it can alone fight an entire army of competitors unanimous in support of an alternative.

Source: AMD

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The Past is catching up with Intel.
By dark matter on 10/30/2012 1:16:52 PM , Rating: 3
Not least with all the legacy instructions it has to put on it's chips, but with the legacy of it's past business dealings.

Don't get me wrong, they still do mighty fine x86 chips. I would chose no-one else.

However, I am in a minority need. Not many people require the sheer horsepower in my machine. Not to simply browse the Internet, send a few emails.

And given that most video processes are now handled by GPU, there isn't much call for a fast processor.

In fact, the E8400 is still overkill for a majority of people.

RE: The Past is catching up with Intel.
By dark matter on 10/30/12, Rating: 0
RE: The Past is catching up with Intel.
By someguy123 on 10/30/2012 2:07:51 PM , Rating: 2
Doesn't really reflect actual revenue, though. Intel is profiting the same as ever. Their atom chips are also comparable in performance/draw these days. Chip in the last intel phone was about as fast as the krait per core, and that was 32nm without finfet. Rather than x86 hit to the die, affordability is whats likely going to hurt them compared to ARM. Smaller companies may need to go to intel/amd for chips but anyone that can afford to will license ARM and produce their own considering ARM licenses hardly cost anything.

RE: The Past is catching up with Intel.
By Argon18 on 10/30/12, Rating: 0
By nafhan on 10/30/2012 4:26:33 PM , Rating: 3
It's taken Intel a while, but they are there. Check out some reviews of the Razr i if you need any convincing. It actually has slightly better battery life and slightly better performance than the Razr M (two phones that are essentially identical other than the chipsets used).

By someguy123 on 10/30/2012 4:41:52 PM , Rating: 2
I never said it was competitive, I said it was comparable. their z atom chips are comparable to krait per core, but obviously there are multicore kraits vs currently single core SoC atom. Guy above gave a good example with the Razr I. Pretty good midrange phone overall while keeping x86 on there. Get it shrunk down to 22nm with finfet like ivy and things get interesting.

RE: The Past is catching up with Intel.
By Brandon Hill on 10/30/2012 1:25:43 PM , Rating: 3
And didn't Intel sell their ARM business a while ago? I bet they're wishing they hadn't done that now.

RE: The Past is catching up with Intel.
By StevoLincolnite on 10/30/2012 2:12:37 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah they did.
But realistically, buying a new ARM license would more or less be chump change for Intel, plus they already have some of the worlds best engineers and fabrication process's, so if push came to shove they could easily enter the fray.

However, I highly doubt Intel will go Arm, at-least not yet, Intel has proven it can scale down Atom to ARM's level of Performance/Watt, a few more years and it wouldn't surprise me if the Core iX line was in that same league.

Plus, with medfield Intel has binary translation so it can run ARM and x86 instruction sets which is simply huge from a compatibility standpoint.

The big killer though with Intel is price, ARM chips can be incredibly cheap, where-as Intel love to charge a premium, I highly doubt we will ever see a Raspberry P.I based x86 board for the cost of a dinner date.

RE: The Past is catching up with Intel.
By Samus on 10/30/2012 2:48:12 PM , Rating: 2
The problem Intel had with Itanium was timing. Nobody wanted it when they were cooking it up in the 90's. Intel decided to push forward with it because they knew x86 wasn't the future in the same way a petroleum-burning engine isn't the future.

Unfortunately for Intel, the future is now. My analogy isn't all that far fetched, the changes in technologies we use are all fueled by efficiency, and with a growing population, stressed resources and political malfunction, more than ever we need power-efficient computing as much as we need fuel-efficient vehicles.

The difference is RISC's time has come, but hydrogen/electric powered vehicles has not.

By Trisped on 10/30/2012 5:03:20 PM , Rating: 2
Itanium was not just timing. It was a massively parallel processor which was difficult to write well optimized code for. While it had a lot of good idea, the fact that it was not a simple recompile to get the benefit of the more expensive processor was the large problem with Itanium, and what ultimately prevented it from being anything other then a niche product.

By StormyKnight on 10/31/2012 3:22:37 AM , Rating: 2
This and AMD came out with their 64-bit extentions to the x86 cpu line that even Intel licensed. Opterons and Xeon CPUs with these extensions compteted against the Itaniums. They didn't have the same processing power, but the price was right. Just about anyone could have a decent 64-bit multi-processing server for cheap.

By Ammohunt on 10/30/2012 1:55:17 PM , Rating: 2
And given that most video processes are now handled by GPU, there isn't much call for a fast processor.

Not on the desktop for sure but its been that way for a long long time. In the server arena in certain applications raw cpu horsepower makes the difference.

This is great news and shows that AMD is thinking ahead to new markets whereas intel is thinking about maintaining status quo. I am sure intel will play catchup as they did with the 64-bit extensions.

By Trisped on 10/30/2012 5:13:02 PM , Rating: 2
Its monopoly was a problem in the past, yes. But other then that you are way off.
If you want your programs to be quick and responsive then you need a powerful processor. Even your fancy email app requires a fast processor to help those visual transitions, quick search, and other features work transparently to the user. There is also high demand, even in the mobile space, for more powerful processors, hence the quad core cell phones which have less workload then my 2004 PC which just had HyperThreading.

What it really comes down to is how long before Intel's x86 processors are using the same amount of power as ARM processors. Intel seems to think this will happen soon (if it has not already). At that point the major advantage of ARM (its simple design not requiring as much power as Intel's) is lost and then it is only a matter of price and performance. I can tell you that the x86's extensions and longer pipeline were not added to make it easier for programmers or compilers, they were added because they made common tasks fast.

It is only a matter of time before ARM starts adding similar features. The question is if Intel will still be around when that time comes.

"If you look at the last five years, if you look at what major innovations have occurred in computing technology, every single one of them came from AMD. Not a single innovation came from Intel." -- AMD CEO Hector Ruiz in 2007

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