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The Waves Of 64-bit ARM and Windows 8 Systems Are Going To Have An Impact

The buzz over Apple's iPad Mini (see The iPad Mini Arrives With Few Surprises) and updated iPads is quickly being smothered by two recent announcements including Arm's Cortex-A50 (see Delivering 64-Bit Arm Platforms) and Microsoft's Windows 8 (see Windows 8 Changes Are More Than Skin Deep Windows 8 Changes Are More Than Skin Deep). These two look to be rising waves that will be large and long. It could be a wild ride.

Apple's iPad family will continue to sell well but the overall impact of Microsoft's and Arm's announcement will have a much wider than even the popular iPad. This is because these other two items address more markets than the iPad that has a very large but focused audience.

The Windows 8 Wave

Microsoft's Windows 8 release covers everything from desktops to tablets (Fig. 1). It has a new programming interface and user interface that developers are just starting to master.

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Figure 1. Microsoft's Windows 8 release addresses everything from desktops to tablets and smartphones.

Windows 8 will clearly dominate the desktop market essentially competing with its siblings including Windows 7, Windows Vista and Windows XP. Desktops shipments are not the growing like a decade ago but they remain an important market. Forced migration to Windows 8 will occur simply because it will be the only platform available on new machines.

At this point, Windows 7 Embedded will remain the platform of choice but eventually a newer incarnation, likely Windows 8 Embedded, will replace it. Embedded applications have different requirements and the embedded Windows incarnation has always trailed the desktop version.

Laptops, netbooks and Ultrabooks have seen some Linux incursions but Windows is still the dominant operating system for non-Apple solutions. Windows 8's touch support is something that is becoming more common on these mobile platforms. Windows 7 and earlier versions of Windows had touch support to a degree but it tended to be more mouse simulation or character recognition support. Windows 8 support is much different and not a device driver afterthought of the earlier version.

The tablet market is where Microsoft and company run right into Apple's iPad and a host of Android tablets. The market has broken out into small 7-in tablets and larger 10-in tablets. Aspect ratio and overall size vary significantly but there is more variance in this area than most others in terms of hardware.

There are two big Windows 8 kickers in the tablet market. The first is that Microsoft will be selling its own hardware. The second is the Windows RT support for Arm platforms.

The challenge in the tablet market will be managing the confusion that arises because of the Windows name. Windows RT is essentially Windows 8 and it looks and operates like its x86 counterparts. In general, Windows RT tablets, including those from third parties, will compete directly with Android and iPad tablets but also with x86 Windows 8 tablets.

The x86-based Windows 8 tablets are the only ones that can run x86 Windows applications. This will probably be the reason for users to choose this platform over an Arm-based solution.

Windows 8 smartphones have a lot of competition with Apple's iPhone and Android-based smartphones. Apple has carved out a major chunk of the market with just a couple iPhone platforms while a number of Android solutions are available. It seems that new Android smartphones pop up every week.

The Windows 8 wave is just starting. It will be at least a year before it crests. The only reason its impact will not be wider is that Microsoft's server offering has its own naming convention and support. The underlying technology for Windows 8, especially power management and security, will be or have been incorporated into Windows Server.

The 64-bit ARM Wave

Arm announced their 64-bit offerinig awhile ago (see Arm Joins The 64-bit Club) but Arm TechCon 2012 is where this architecture has started to turn into a real platform family now called Cortex-A50. Two incarnations, the low power Cortex-53 and high performance Cortex-57 can be combined in a big.LITTLE (see Little Core Shares Big Core Architecture) configuration for platforms like smartphones and tablets (Fig. 2).

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Figure 2. Arm's new 64-bit cores can be combined in a big.LITTLE configuration.

Single and multiple versions are likely to include a GPU like Arm's own Mali platform (see Mobile GPU Architecture Supports Emerging Compression Standard). Multicore versions are also going to be found in servers from small business servers to high performance computing (HPC) platforms.

The server side has the potential for major growth. The 64-bit architectures dominate the server market and now Arm licensees have a platform they did not have before. There have been HPC platforms with 32-bit ARM cores but these have been designed for low power and high performance/watt. The 32-bit solution is fine for many applications including supporting LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) environments but applications like database servers push the limits of 32-bit platforms.

Compatibility between 32- and 64-bit architectures was very important. It was critical for the success of the x86 and it is found in other platforms like Power and MIPS. It allows the existing 32-bit software to be the basis for supporting the new platform.

Arm's new 64-bit platform is getting a lot of support from existing Arm licensees as well as vendors that build systems based on x86 chips. One interesting change is from AMD that is known for its x86 compatible chips. It is also a major player in the high performance compute space with its SeaMicro systems that utilize a high speed fabric to connect hundreds of cores together (see Server Packs 768 Atom Cores To Take On The Cloud). The platform supports Intel Atom, Intel Xeon and AMD Opteron chips within the fabric.

AMD has indicated that they will be building chips based on the Cortex-A50 architecture for this platform but they will be one of the first to incorporate the fabric support on-chip. Currently AMD has a SeaMicro switch chip that supports one or more processor chips via PCI Express. Moving this support into the processor chip potentially eliminates two chips because the PCI Express support typically requires a support chip as well.

As with most Cortex-A50 supporters, the delivery of actual hardware in any quantities is a ways off but the wave is rising. Like Windows 8, the question will be how wide, how high and how long the wave will go.

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