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AMD to embrace ARM architecture in next-gen Opteron server chips

It's official - Advanced Micro Devices is embracing the ARM architecture with a new generation of server products that will begin to appear in 2014, marking a major "inflection point" in computing as the world's second-leading x86 house moves to an "if-you-can't-fight-em-join-me" strategy with regards to the disruptive processor architecture that has dominated mobile device platforms in recent years.

AMD trotted out president and CEO Rory Read and Lisa Su, general manager of the chip manufacturer's Global Business Units, to talk up the new alliance at a press event in San Francisco yesterday. Missing in action was ARM CEO Warren East, who had planned on attending the event but was waylaid by Hurricane Sandy and instead offered up a video testimonial to the multi-year data centre project from the back seat of his car outside London's Heathrow Airport.

The key here is the growth of cloud-based services and an increasing need for data centre systems that can handle homogeneous workloads, two factors that AMD said it believes will create an increasing opportunity for hybrid processor solutions that involve its legacy x86 technology, new graphics-supported Accelerated Processor Units (APUs), and strategic use of the 64-bit ARM designs it is now licensing.

While the details of how this partnership will play out were somewhat vague, the writing has been on the wall for several months with regards to an AMD-ARM collaboration. The two companies, along with Texas Instruments, MediaTek, and Imagination Technologies, were the original founders of the open-standards Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) Foundation established a few months ago and ARM has been a key presenter at AMD's recent Fusion Developer Summit events.

What we do know is that the pair is planning something quite a bit more intensive than dropping a few ARM-based chips onto a motherboard that also carries x86 chipsets from AMD. The latter company is taking out a full-fledged ARM license and talked up future System-on-a-Chip (SoC) developments, meaning AMD plans to develop and release Opteron-branded server parts that mix ARM's technology in with its own architecture at the die level, or so it would seem.

All of this ties in with AMD's acquisition of micro-server developer SeaMicro earlier in the year and Read and Su made frequent mention of a plan to leverage SeaMicro's well-regarded and proprietary data centre fabric technology in the marketing of ARM-based Opteron server platforms in a few years' time.

Will this new cross-architectural development path waterfall down to AMD's client offerings for PCs and mobile devices? Read and Su were asked this question directly but didn't offer a solid response, so it's anybody's guess as to when or if that will happen.

For now, AMD looks to keep producing an x86 line of server products while supplementing that with the new ARM server chips that won't be out for another couple of years. Read responded to a question about growth potential for ARM and micro-servers in the data centre by saying AMD sees it as a huge growth opportunity but refraining from attaching a specific predictive figure to how much data centre market share such products will take in the coming years.

Tech analysts had mixed reactions to the news.

Jack Gold, principal at J. Gold Associates, praised AMD for its "ambidextrous approach" to the data centre going forward, but wondered whether the 2014 timeline for the first ARM-based AMD products would leave the door open for competitors like Calxeda to position themselves to take advantage of changing data centre needs sooner.

"I'm still pessimistic long-term for AMD, because SeaMicro only gets them part of the way. Where's mobile?" Gold wondered. "The first AMD ARM products aren't scheduled until 2014. That leaves lots of time for others to move ahead and AMD appears to be buying the [ARM] core rather than doing deep design."

Patrick Moorhead of Moor Insights & Strategy and a former AMD executive also raised questions about the extended timing of AMD's plans but stressed the chip manufacturer's data centre expertise and enviable positioning with its SeaMicro technology.

"AMD brings over a decade of server hardware and software experience to the table, this time to the ARM architecture," Moorhead said. "This gives the micro-server market another dose of credibility, particularly after players like Calxeda, HP, and Dell have also entered the fray.

"AMD's secret sauce is undoubtedly the high speed fabric that connects the nodes and the fact that AMD can legitimately bring ARM and x86 servers to customers, but the biggest challenge is the timing as the servers won't be available until 2014, giving Intel ample time to work on a response."