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AMD raids Apple for chip guru Keller

Advanced Micro Devices is welcoming renowned chip designer Jim Keller back to the fold after stints at Broadcom, P.A. Semi, and most recently as the brains behind the mobile processors used in Apple's iPhone and iPad, AMD announced on Wednesday.

Keller, who was instrumental in the development of both the HyperTransport specification and the x86-64 processor instruction set used in AMD's groundbreaking Athlon 64 and Opteron 64 processors released in 2003, rejoins the chip maker as a corporate vice president and chief architect of microprocessor cores.

The 53-year-old designed MIPS-based network processors for Broadcom after leaving AMD, then moved on to P.A. Semi where he was vice president of design. The fabless semiconductor company was acquired in 2008 by Apple, where Keller worked on System-on-a-Chip (SoC) architectures to power Apple's iOS devices.

"Jim is one of the most widely respected and sought-after innovators in the industry and a very strong addition to our engineering team. He has contributed to processing innovations that have delivered tremendous computer advances for millions of people all over the world, and we expect that his innovative spirit, low-power design expertise, creativity and drive for success will help us shape our future and fuel our growth," AMD's chief technology officer Mark Papermaster said in a statement.

Keller's hire comes just about a week after Apple brought in former AMD chip designer John Bruno, a key developer of AMD's current-generation accelerated processing unit (APU) platform code named Trinity who joins several other former AMD engineers recruited to the Cupertino team in recent years.

The cross-pollination of engineering talent between AMD and Apple is indicative of the agenda at both companies to pursue low-power, multi-purpose processor architectures, according to Patrick Moorhead, chief analyst and Moor Insights & Strategy. For AMD especially, the arrival of Keller could point to a renewed push by AMD into mobile devices like tablets after watching largely on the sidelines as traditional PC rivals Nvidia and Intel have managed to make headway in mobile to a greater or lesser degree, he added.

"This is a good hire for AMD. Not only is Keller a good designer with winning project experience, but most importantly he has expertise in SoCs and the lowest-power CPU cores. AMD has made tremendous progress with Trinity and Brazos on performance per watt but this is in the PC, not the mobile space," Moorhead said.

The analyst also alluded to AMD's recent acquisition of SeaMicro, which makes so-called microservers that use lots of low-power CPUs rather than just a few energy-hogging powerhouses like AMD's Opteron processors or Intel's Xeon chips. SeaMicro's microservers currently use Intel's low-power Atom processors but that's something AMD would probably like to change, Moorhead indicated.

Apple's A-Series SoCs used in iOS devices match ARM-based central processing and graphics processing while AMD's APUs marry x86 CPU cores with the chip maker's own GPU technology acquired in its 2006 deal for ATI Technologies. But AMD has been cosying up to ARM of late and may be looking to leverage the addition of an experienced ARM architect like Keller to further explore that budding relationship.