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Low-Power Microprocessor Wars

The explosive growth in mobile data, mainly fueled by HD photos, video and social networking, is pushing positive growth in the datacenter market despite the global recession and the growth in power consumption of ICT is a direct consequence of the data to be handled. Governments are pushing for legislation to reduce that power growth but, rather perversely, organizations such as the EU are looking at ways at expanding fast-broadband that will only serve to increase internet usage.

Whilst phones get smarter (or is that cameras get dumber?) — enabled by fantastically power efficient ARM-based microprocessors — the x86 server market continues to leverage the de facto Intel standard chip with the result that power demand in the networks are growing >60 percent per year – which is unsustainable.

The difference between the power consumption per operation of RISC and CISC architectures is marked, so it was with great interest recently in a seminar in London someone announced that the EU were planning to invest money in a research program to leverage the energy efficiency of ARM-based processors into the x86 market in a drive to reduce European ICT power consumption. My interest was heightened by the fact that we don’t have a single ICT server OEM – either for design or manufacture; very different from the USA where all of the decisions are made, some design is done but all manufacturing has been exported to the Far East. The thought that the EU believed that they could influence a global industry with no roots in the region by giving several hundred thousand Euros to some happy recipient and get a “result” is optimistic, to say the least, especially when you consider the investment that the likes of Intel have to make in a chip-fab plant for a new processor; they have to sell millions of chips to recover their investment and no amount of “progress” will shorten the life of a design before the RoI has been met. The fact is that, so far, Intel has dominated the PC market and ARM (in all its derivatives, licenses and partnerships) have dominated the mobile phone market.

Anyway, here we are just a few weeks later and the market has revealed itself to be way ahead of the bureaucratic curve. It looks like 2012-13 will be the outbreak of war between Intel and ARM:  Intel has seen the PC market flattening out and needs to get into the phone market (half a billion in 2011) whilst ARM is peering into the US$50Bn server market. But the market is already moving: Calxeda in Austin, Texas, is starting to ship 32-bit ARM mobile chipsets into servers applications followed hot-foot by AppliedMicro, California, which is working on a faster 64-bit solution. HP will stuff just one 19” few-U box with 288 Calxeda ARM-based processors. On the other side Intel is pushing their low-power Atom into forthcoming Lenovo and Motorola smart-phones. So the battle is already joined and our taxpayers’ money will be saved for supporting the currency itself.

Ian Bitterlin is CTO for Ark Continuity – a developer of high integrity, low carbon, data-centre’s based in Corsham, Wiltshire. With a strong real-estate portfolio, well over 100MVA of power and planning consent for >100,000m² of critical space in multiple UK locations, Ark is at the forefront of the low-energy data-center market.

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