ARM stretches out with A5 core, graphics, FPGAs

TechOnline India - October 21, 2009

ARM Ltd. opens its annual Silicon Valley technical conference announcing the Cortex A5, a new core to anchor its high-end line of mobile and embedded processors as well as plans to bolster its nascent position in graphics, extend its progress in microcontrollers and take a step in a potentially new direction with FPGAs.

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Just a mile down the road from the headquarters of archrival Intel Corp., ARM Ltd. opens its annual Silicon Valley technical conference today announcing a new core to anchor its high-end line of mobile and embedded processors.

The move represents one of several directions in which ARM is flexing its muscle to address new and old competitors and opportunities. Separately, ARM will use the event to bolster its nascent position in graphics, extend its progress in microcontrollers and take a step in a new direction with FPGAs.

But the main star of the ARM 2009 show is the A5, aka Sparrow, a new entry-level member of the Cortex family. It is positioned as the logical upgrade for today's ARM926EJ-S and ARM11 cores, bringing that diverse set of products under one software-compatible umbrella.

It's a good time for ARM to rationalize its product line. When this conference opens next year, Intel will be preparing to sample a 32nm version of its Atom processor, directly challenging for the first time ARM's nearly complete dominance of the huge mobile device market.

ARM has as much as 98 percent of the handset market. "I am told they have an average of 2.5 processors per cellphone, and I believe it," said Will Strauss, market watcher with Forward Concepts (Tempe, Ariz.).

ARM-based designs such as Marvell's Armada, Nvidia's Tegra, Qualcomm's Snapdragon and Texas Instrument's OMAP seek to push ARM's prowess beyond handsets into small notebooks and other mobile systems. But the world's biggest chip maker has a keen focus on using current and future versions of Atom to dominate netbooks and break into smart phones, a growth market beyond PCs it has long coveted.

{pagebreak}The Cortex A5 resides well below the performance and the power consumption of any Intel Atom chips. It is also significantly above ARM's M series that is increasingly gaining traction in the even broader market of microcontrollers for embedded systems

The Cortex A5 essentially is a simplified version of the A8/9. ARM took the superscalar pipeline capable of issuing multiple instructions per clock cycle and trimmed it down to a pipeline that basically issues one instruction per clock handled in order.

However, the A5 does have a dynamic branch prediction capability that gives it better performance than the ARM9. It also has a capability to issue two instructions in limited branching situations, said Travis Lanier, product manager for the A5.

In a low power 40 nm process, the A5 is expected to run at data rates up to about 500 MHz, burn about 0.12 milliW per MHz and deliver about 1.57 Dhrystone MIPS per MHz. Data rates could be doubled using a general purpose process technology, although that is not the chip's main target.

The net result is a core that could provide about 20 percent more performance than an ARM11 at two-thirds its area and 80 percent more than an ARM9 in a similar size chip.


ARM simplifies Cortex pipeline with A5 "Sparrow"
Click on image to enlarge.

The core also shares a lot of the technical goodies of its big brothers, the Cortex A8 and A9, which the older ARM cores lack. For instance the A5 supports ARM's Neon SIMD instructions for media acceleration and its TrustZone security capabilities.

The new core also supports the ARM 64-bit AXI bus. However, many chip makers are expected to continue to use existing peripherals on the 32-bit AHB bus except for a few blocks that demand higher performance.

The A5 can also use ARM's Mcore technology to be implemented in a quad-core processor. Such a design could run at up to a GHz and deliver 8.5 CoreMarks per MHz, ARM claims.

ARM is still finishing the A5 design and doesn't expect to have test chips back from the fab until early next year. The company is believed to have three A5 licensees, led by Atmel, which decided at the last minute to hold an announcement until it was closer to the release of silicon.

According to documents obtained by EE Times, Atmel is expected to announce in the second half of 2010 a single-core A5 chip built in a 65nm process and running at 667 MHz to deliver 1,000 Dhrystone MIPS. The processors will be C code compatible with the Atmel's existing ARM926 chips, likely support two DMA-backed DDR2 memory channels and use a combination of the AXI and AHB buses. They will take on Mips, PowerPC and x86-based processors in a variety of industrial, medical and retail markets.

The A5 has plenty of head room for more licensees given ARM has more than 100 ARM926EJ-S and more than 40 ARM1176JZ licensees. But it's still early days. Given the early stage of the design, most chips based on the core may not ship until 2011.

"They are trying to move people up to the Cortex line which has features the older cores lack," said Tom Halfhill, senior editor of the Microprocessor Report. "The ARM11 is about five years old while the 926 is about nine years old, and--even for embedded processors--that's a long time," he said.

"To some extent this will help ARM defend its markets from encroachment from Intel and others," Halfhill added. "Its way below the neighborhood of the Atom, but Intel is going in this direction," particularly with its deal in March to make the Atom core available through TSMC, he said.

{pagebreak}Separately, ARM will use its Silicon Valley conference to rally support for its nascent Mali graphics accelerator core and position itself as a partner with one of Silicon Valley's FPGA giants, Xilinx.

ARM is launching a Web site to support Mali developers and announcing two third-party development boards for Mali that will be available through the Web site "in the next few months," said Elan Lennard, manager of the Mali developer site.

"We've seen quite a large pick up in the number of Mali licensees driven by customer demand for bigger displays and better interfaces and gaming," said Lennard. The new Web site "is a way to deliver to app developers not necessarily employed by our licensees the tools and documentation they need" including free shader tools, libraries and emulators, she said.

ARM and partners will show more than 15 demos of user interfaces and other apps running on Mali including an automotive dashboard from Mentor Graphics. "You need to be responsive with immediate feedback for car UIs, and we are seeing interest in this app in both low- and high-end cars," she said.

Mali-based chips are just starting to trickle into a market so far dominated by embedded graphics cores from many other companies.

The first-generation Mali 55 core complaint with the OpenGL ES 1.1 standard is shipping in a few handsets from LG Electronics and others. There are hardware development platforms available for the Mali 200 and ones coming for Mali 400 cores that support today's OpenGL ES 2.0 spec.

The Mali 200 cores will process 16 million triangles/second. The Mali 400 will nearly double that to 30 million triangles/s and support full 1080-progressive video on a four-core design measuring 16 mm-squared in a 65nm process.

ARM's move into FPGA territory is even more nascent—and possibly more significant. The company struck a vaguely worded development deal with Xilinx announced two days before the Silicon Valley event opened.

The deal could be an important one. It appears to span a broad range of ARM cores, involve co-development of a future ARM bus and point to an emerging SoC approach that merges processors cores and FPGAs, according to an EE Times analysis.

The ARM/Xilinx deal raises questions about the future of PowerPC cores currently available for use in Xilinx FPGAs. It also sets up a competition with Altera and Mips Technologies that have announced a roughly similar deal earlier this month. A little more than a year ago Arrow announced a service to integrate AREM cores on Altera FPGAs.

Several observers remain skeptical. PowerPC never gained as much traction in its FPGAs as Xilinx's own MicroBlaze cores, said Strauss of Forward Concepts. And embedded developers prefer to work in C, not the VHDL-like environments of FPGAs, he said.

{pagebreak}On yet another front, ARM will tout at the event its progress making inroads into the broad microcontroller market.

For instance, Toshiba will announce a 32-bit MCU based on an 80 MHz ARM M3 core, aiming at a world of high-efficiency motor applications such as washing machines, refrigerators and air conditioners. The M370 is Toshiba's first of a coming family of 5V M3 parts and the first to employ its hardware vector engine.

NXP is preparing to use the ARM M0 cores to reach into even lower-end embedded systems, although its first parts won't ship until late this year. NXP is essentially replacing its aging 8051 controllers with 8- and 16-bit ARM M0 designs in an effort announced in April.

The move could more than double the volume of sockets ARM cores can address today, said Geoff Lees, general manager of NXPs microcontroller line. "We've been searching for a way to take the ARM architecture from the beginning to end of our line," he added.

The move comes as microcontrollers follow in the footsteps of DSPs which have shifted from off-the-shelf to SoC-based designs, said Strauss. "The whole world of microcontrollers is pretty much SoCs--the world is moving away from off-the-shelf anything," he said.

ARM is still a small incumbent player here. It has a market share approaching 25 percent in microcontrollers, according to Tony Massimini of Semico Research (Phoenix), although others say its market share still could be measured in single digits.

ARM has about ten microcontroller licensees led by Texas Instruments through its acquisition of Luminary in May, STMicroelectronics, Atmel, NXP, Oki and Samsung. They compete with the big microcontroller players who have their own architectures including Renesas, NEC, Freescale, Infineon and Microchip.

Price competition is bloody in this market and may get even more so as giants such as Renesas and NEC prepare to merge their businesses, said Massimini. The good news is the market is expected to snap back quickly from the global recession.

Semico forecasts the microcontroller market will see 14.9 percent growth next year after falling 15.6 percent in 2009. The 32-bit market is the most resilient slice of that market, jumping to 30.3 percent growth next year from a negative 6.5 percent decline in 2009.

"This year was the first time I can remember 32-bit microcontrollers ever declining," said Massimini.

Another market watcher predicted ARM could surpass PowerPC and x86 to become the leading 32-bit microcontroller architecture in 2011.

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