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AMD on the path to getting ARM-ed

Posted: 02 May 2011     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ARM processors  x86 processor architecture  AMD-Intel partnership  many-core processor chips 

A question about Advanced Micro Devices during a presentation of ARM's first quarter financial results first quarter financial results had Warren East, CEO of processor licensor ARM Holdings brush off reports about a big story.

Instead, East and ARM chief financial officer Tim Score merely stated that the company, prompted by its shareholders, has long been trying to sell to AMD. They added that AMD is currently weighing its strategic options, which to them is a clear indication of a "heightened opportunity" to make that sale.

That AMD might abandon—or at least augment with licensed-in ARM processors—the x86 processor architecture that has defined the company for 20 years, is to think the unthinkable. But it clearly makes sense. Such a move could not happen overnight. It may take years with x86 processors from AMD hanging on in some applications, but the general arguments seem compelling.

And such a move supports ARM's increasing rivalry with Intel and its position in the IBM/Globalfoundries Common Platform Architecture camp.

Since AMD made providing x86 cores its primary business, it has always been in the shadow of Intel. This is partly because as Intel is the definer of the architecture, AMD is always playing catch-up, trying to provide a code-compatible processor at a better price. And Intel, as market leader with phenomenally deep pockets, has been able to use a mixture of pricing and manufacturing leadership to keep AMD under pressure.

Indeed, AMD was forced to divest itself of in-house manufacturing two years ago as it could no longer afford to keep developing manufacturing technology and putting down billions of dollars to build wafer fabs in which to run them at the same time as developing microprocessors. That divestiture was the seed for the creation of Globalfoundries Inc., now one of its foundry partners.

Intel follower or ARM-based leader?
But clearly the transition from simple multi-core to many-core processing also represents a fundamental shift in battleground for a company like AMD. Software becomes much more important and to a degree it resets the competition. Intel has as little idea as anyone else, possibly less idea, about how to make efficient use of many-core processor chips. This would therefore be the right time for AMD to jump ship.

While AMD is focused solely on the x86 architecture, its primary requirement is to make ICs perform like Intel's. And with Intel's multi-core developments becoming harder to track, it is quite probably too expensive for a fabless company that is only in the PC market, such as AMD, to do the work of continually playing catch-up with Intel.

The only prize that AMD gets for that strategy is lots of expense and always being second to Intel, which may not itself be making all the right moves.

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