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微软与ARM合作自主开发芯片?

上网日期: 2010年07月28日 ?? 我来评论 字号:放大 | 缩小 分享到:sina weibo tencent weibo tencent weibo


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关键字:微软? ARM? 自主开发芯片? Winodws 7?

Microsoft-ARM deal is a consumer, computing game-changer

Peter Clarke

Microsoft's move to take an architectural license from ARM does NOT necessarily mean that the software giant is about to announce Windows 7 support for ARM processors any time soon. But it does mean that ARM support for Microsoft in consumer applications and Microsoft support for ARM in PCs is looking not only likely, but strategic for both companies.

And so Big Windows on ARM may well happen as a consequence of Microsoft becoming closer to ARM and seeing their futures more closely aligned. But to focus on what little detail has been provided so far, an architectural license from ARM is primarily about freedom of action in chip design - and differentiation from all the other ARM partners who are taking individual core licenses.

So why is Microsoft getting deeper into the chip design business? Well, right now Microsoft isn't saying, but it looks like this might be a case of Apple-envy. Apple is believed to be an unannounced architectural licensee of ARM and to have used it to good effect in creating the A4 processor used in the iPad tablet computer.

"This is a very significant announcement for ARM because it implies that Microsoft could go down the same route as Apple and design applications processors for multiple end-markets, including mobile computers, MP3 players, Xbox and others," Didier Scemama, head of European Technology Research with Royal Bank of Scotland, told EE Times.

"The second quote provides the clue that Microsoft is looking to broaden its R&D into server and computer applications," he added. In a note to clients Scemama also said: "This deal substantially raises the odds that Microsoft supports the ARM architecture in next-generation Windows-based PCs." Microsoft only supports Intel's x86 architecture for PCs today and withholding that support has appeared to have curtailed ARM's success in the netbook market, at least to date. However, that has also been a double-edged sword because Linux based operating systems, running on ARM, have started to gain traction in the vacuum left by Microsoft's lack of support.

"It [the deal] may not have much earnings impact [for ARM] over the next two or three years but over the next four or five years ARM is going to be more competitive in CPU applications." It is also seems to support ARM's attempts to promote its Mali graphics processor, Scemama said, which would have a negative impact on graphics core licensor Imagination Technologies Group plc.

It is logical that just as ARM can help Microsoft perform better in the consumer space, Microsoft could provide ARM with better access to the 400 million plus units-per-year personal computer market.

Are you being served?

A previous job advertisement provides another clue. In April we reported that Microsoft was looking for a senior software development engineer to help with its Bing data centers, potentially running them on ARM hardware. That engineer is assigned to the Bing Autopilot Hardware team and the ad seemed to imply that an ARM processor could be used for the main server in an attempt to save power.

The architectural license certainly implies that Microsoft wants to create multiple ARM chips and use them on multiple fronts. But it also implies strategic longevity as well as breadth to the relationship. Companies pay more for the additional scope of an architectural license because it means that they can do their own thing and do not need to negotiate multiple times over individual cores. In short, paying a few tens of millions of dollars up front works out cheaper than multiple deals and negotiations in the long run. It may or may not avoid the paying of a per-unit royalty on chips shipped. It is, in effect, the "all-you-can-eat" deal.

Indeed, it is quite likely that Microsoft has paid a fee for ARM instruction set developments that have not yet even been invented. The current Cortex generation of processors mostly come under version 7 of the ARM architecture, but the Microsoft deal may include version 8 and beyond.

Designing processors is an expensive and risky business, as we have seen with increased numbers of failing fabless chip companies over recent months. So why would Microsoft want to go there. Well partly because chips have become an adjunct to the software that is the heart of the system and Microsoft's prime concern and partly because it has the resources that mean it can afford to do so. This helps differentiate it from smaller players who must buy chips in and then spend time trying to make the software run.

Over time the relationship between software and hardware has changed.

It used to be that hardware was designed and then software was written to execute on that hardware. MSDOS was written to run on the x86-based PC. Now, because of the huge amounts of legacy software, effectively the software is written first and the hardware has to be designed to run the legacy as well as the latest iteration as effectively and power efficiently as possible.

Expensive as chip design is now requires a fraction of the resources that writing a major software suite does and it makes sense for companies to also tune the hardware to get the best out of the software. Hence, Microsoft getting involved in IC design for its Xbox games consoles.

Interestingly one reason that Microsoft and ARM were wary collaborators over the previous 13 years was the closeness of Microsoft to Intel, the so-called Wintel axis, although Intel did once upon a time have an architectural license from ARM. This was courtesy of its acquisition of the Strong ARM processor IP, now passed on to Marvell, the company which is using that license for mobile and server applications. So what goes around, comes around.

Microsoft getting closer to ARM cannot help but make Microsoft a bit more distant from Intel, so perhaps that Windows 7 support on netbooks and tablets will come sooner rather than later. But that will not be the end of changes this deal will wreak.


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