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Fallout From ARM’s Success

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Last time, we talked about a number of ARM’s recent successes. This time we’ll discuss a few of the consequences for the rest of the industry. Many people are discussing the effect on Intel and AMD, but probably a bigger victim of the ARM steamroller is RISC-V, the open source processor.

Trouble for Intel’s Profits

This past year wasn’t a good one for Intel. They’ve been having trouble keeping up with chip manufacturing technology. Most other vendors outsource their chip manufacturing to TSMC, Samsung and a couple of others. What has happened is that TSMC is so large that it is out-spending Intel on R&D by orders of manufacturing and as a result is years ahead of Intel in chip technology. The big winners in this are AMD and ARM which now manufacture denser, faster, more power efficient chips than Intel. AMD gave up manufacturing their chips themselves some years ago and ARM never manufactured chips itself. 

Better chip manufacturing technology allows AMD and ARM to fit more processing cores on each chip or produce products in smaller form factors.

Intel’s main problem this past year has been AMD which has been chipping away at their market share. Now with Apple switching to ARM processors, this could be the start of a migration away from Intel. Microsoft already has an ARM version of their Surface notebook running a limited version of Windows, but they could easily produce something more powerful running a full version of Windows. Similarly, other manufacturers, such as Dell or HP could start producing ARM based laptops and workstations running Linux.

Although AMD doesn’t have Intel’s manufacturing problems, it does have a problem with requiring all its chips to support all the instructions introduced into the x86/x64 architecture over the many years of its existence. Modern x86 chips run RISC cores internally, but have to translate the old CISC instructions into RISC instructions as they run. This extra layer is required to keep all those old DOS and Windows programs running, many of which are no longer supported, but used by many users. Both Intel and AMD are at a competitive disadvantage to ARM and RISC-V, who don’t need to waste circuitry doing this, and extra circuitry means higher power consumption and heat production.

Today Intel’s most profitable chips are its data center focused Xeon processors. These are powerful multi-core chips, but with more and more cores being added to ARM processors, even here ARM is starting to chip away at Intel.

RISC-V is having Trouble Launching

I’ve blogged on RISC-V processors a couple of times, this is an open source hardware specification so you can develop a processor without paying royalties or fees to any other companies. Anyone can manufacture an ARM processor, but if they use the ARM instruction set, they need to pay royalties to ARM Holdings. The hope of the RISC-V folks was to stimulate competitive innovation and produce lower cost, more powerful processors.

The reality has been that companies designing RISC-V chips can’t get orders to manufacture in the volume they need to be price competitive.

RISC-V is still ticking along, but it is limited to the following applications:

  • Providing low cost processors for the Arduino market, usually 32-bit processors with a few meg of memory.
  • Producing specialty chips for things like AI processors. Again this is having trouble getting going due to low volumes.
  • Manufacturers like Western Digital using them as embedded processors in their products, like WD’s disk controllers.

What RISC-V really needs is a Single Board Computer (SBC) like the Raspberry Pi. This means with comparable performance and price. Plus they need to run Linux in a stable supported way. Without this there won’t be any software development and they won’t be able to gain any sort of foothold. Doing this will be extremely difficult given how powerful and cheap the current crop of ARM based SBCs are. The level of software support for ARM in the Linux world is phenomenal.


ARM certainly isn’t going to eradicate Intel and AMD anytime soon. But even a small dent in their sales can send their stock price into a tailspin. Investors are going to have to watch the trends very closely, in case they need to bail. RISC-V will continue to have difficulty gaining acceptance, and manufacturing a competitive chip. More companies will adopt ARM and this will increase its competitive advantage. Here ARM’s strategy of licensing designs rather than chips is really paying off in fielding more and more competition for its rivals. Next year will be a very good one for ARM and likely an even tougher year for Intel.

The main conclusion here is that if you are a programmer, you should have a look at ARM and a good way to learn about it is to study its Assembly Language, perhaps by reading my book: “Programming with 64-Bit ARM Assembly Language”.

Written by smist08

July 3, 2020 at 11:23 am

Posted in Business

Tagged with , , , ,

One Response

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  1. The succes of ARM is not holding back RISC-V. The maturity of the cores and the rest of the ecosystem, especially the tooling, is. Being the new kid on the block you can’t expect the support, maturity, features and performance to match older architectures. If ARM was much less successful it’s place would not be taken by RISC-V. It would be taken by Intel, MIPS or Power or SPARC. The last two of which are also royalty free and much more mature than RISC-V.


    July 7, 2020 at 8:11 am

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