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The Big ARM Processor Gamble

The Big ARM Processor Gamble

AMD's Big ARM Processor GambleAMD's Big ARM Processor GambleAMD recently announced that it will be designing ARMv8 64-bit processors to complement its x86 processor portfolio and immerse itself in an evolving market opportunity for ultra-dense microservers.

The old AMD, traces of which are still left at the current AMD, finds itself in familiar territory. Even if AMD separates itself from its old rival Intel, and even if the company can offer a unique product pitch, we have been there before. AMD's future product line remains all but certain.

"The market for [...] gateways is one of our industry’s great growth opportunities. […] AMD is one of the few companies in the world with the experience, customer relationships, and intellectual property to provide complete connectivity solutions for both PCs and non-PCs."

AMD has long been rumored to be looking at processor architectures other than x86, which trapped the company in an uneven battle with Intel and an environment where the company is out-resourced and simply out-spent. A few times over the history of the company, AMD was able to tease Intel with innovative products and once caused severe headaches for its bigger rival when it launched its 64-bit architecture with its Opteron processors in 2003. Eventually, Intel had to reorganize itself to be able to effectively compete with AMD.

This time, AMD has misjudged market trends and it is in severe financial trouble that has convinced executive management to rapidly change direction. One of those directions is to leverage its SeaMicro unit to steam ahead full force into the microserver market, which is not yet dominated by Intel. The quote above states, in very general words, what AMD believes its advantage is.

The problem with that quote is that it was not released by the company this week. It is attributed to former CEO Hector Ruiz and was published in a press release on February 6, 2002. Back then, the company announced the acquisition of Alchemy Semiconductor, which had its roots in server and mobile processor designs using MIPS technology. In 2002, AMD intended to use MIPS for "PDAs, web tablets, and portable and wired Internet access devices and gateways."

This time around, the focus is, at least initially, on servers, and AMD's CEO Rory Read is quoted saying:

"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."

We conclude: Rich words, same story, and slightly different direction - if we assume that a successful implementation of ARM processors is likely to result in a similar offering for smartphones under the AMD brand. However, we wonder: Is AMD serious about non-x86 at this time and how will this affect its customers?

Wolfgang Gruener is a contributor to Tom's IT Pro. He is currently principal analyst at Ndicio Research, a market analysis firm that focuses on cloud computing and disruptive technologies, and maintains the blog. An 18-year veteran in IT journalism and market research, he previously published TG Daily and was managing editor of Tom's Hardware news, which he grew from a link collection in the early 2000s into one of the most comprehensive and trusted technology news sources.

See here for all of Wolfgang's Tom's IT Pro articles.