ARM, Switzerland ‘Knife’ of Processors

After speaking about approaches to RISC and CISC, today we enter a more specific case. We will speak of ARM, architecture but also a company designer with extensive experience and an interesting story that begins in the United Kingdom in the 1970s.

ARM It is an architecture that has had tremendous growth in recent years, even though its birth goes back three decades in the past at the hands of Acorn Computers Ltd., a company already extinct, and who collaborate historical companies of great importance in today’s market.

A bit of history

In 1980, the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) was interested in creating the Computer Literacy Project, an educational series that wanted to propose exercises and tasks of programming, sound or graphics that should be supplemented by a computer. So he started a contest through which sought a British company that design them a team to measure, with a series of requirements such as a low price but at the same time multiple functionalities and possibilities.

Acorn Computers Ltd., founded by Hermann Hauser and Chris Curry and based in Cambridge, had already submitted in March 1979 the Acorn System 1 just a year after its founding, and the BBC competition saw an interesting opportunity. In early 1980, presented to contest the Acorn Proton.

Acorn Atom, 1980

It was an evolution with respect to its predecessor, the Acorn Atom: a computer to market domestic and put on sale in 1980, with a processor MOS 6502 at 1 MHz, 2 KB of RAM and 8 of ROM, expandable to 12 KB both. Even available peripherals as a tape reader, the most common storage of the time. The Acorn Proton also were a MOS 6502 processor but a 2 MHz., in addition to greater amount of RAM (16 KB) and a greater number of peripheral partners, such as access to tapes, networks or even printer.

The Acorn Proton He fought against other companies such as Sinclair and Dragon designs and came out victorious by a high-power – especially in the graphics – and reduced price: about 235 pounds. In April 1981 the BBC came to an agreement with Acorn so that they replacing 12,000 units of Proton’s face to the spring of 1982, when the Computer Literacy Project began his career in television. It was then when the name was changed and the Acorn Proton was renamed BBC Micro.

British Broadcasting Corporation Micro, 1982, with enormous like the Atom

The BBC was able to move his project and the BBC Micro was a complete success. Acorn sold 24,000 units in 1982 which amounted to one million in lifetime micro, from its release until the year 1994 which was withdrawn from the market. Success for the BBC and lots of money to Acorn, a company that despite having a few years of life was able to enter the market of the domestic computers in a really fast way.

After the BBC Micro, Acorn began to consider new developments in subsequent years. New hardware designed to compete against the domestic teams of the time of renowned companies such as Amstrad, Sinclair or Apple, and at the same time tried to enter the professional market with high-performance chips based on the RISC approach.

In 1983, Acorn started the design of what a couple of years later was Acorn RISC Machine, ARM, and that was in the ARM1 his first chip final but not yet commercial. Acorn manufacturing instructed VLSI Technology, Inc., which manufactured from April 26, 1985 in few units which were only used by the Acorn itself internally, to design a second version already public: ARM2.

ARM2 was a math coprocessor core support the CPU that began to be used on the BBC Micro, thanks to its high scalability, and also subsequently came to the market with a version compatible with the IBM PC of the time. It offered a yield of about 4 MIPS (millions of instructions per second) running at 8 MHz., with a consumption of 0.1 Watt and the use of some 30,000 transistors (by about 68,000 of the competitor Motorola 68000).

In this period in which the ARM1 and ARM2 were developed, Acorn had serious economic problems. In 1983 presented the Acorn Electron, an improved version of the BBC Micro, which competed against the legendary Commodore 64 and Sinclair ZX Spectrum at the time. They suffered problems of equipment manufacturing (300,000 units were ordered but the manufacturer could only create 30,000) that led users to buy products from Commodore and Sinclair in a campaign as important as the Christmas, in this case of the year 1984. The stock came a few months later and Acorn accumulated 250,000 units of the Electron unsold. The wound was made and even Acorn reached an agreement with Olivetti that he bought some shares.

British Broadcasting Corporation Master, 1986 (via Wikipedia)

Despite this, Acorn continued to manufacture new computers for both domestic and professional use, as they were the BBC Master (1986) and Acorn Archimedes (1987). It’s two teams that used technology ARM, the first in the form of co-processor and the second as a central processor, with fairly high prices (499 and from 800 pounds, respectively) and that did not work quite badly in the market, mainly in the academic setting (colleges and universities). The Acorn Archimedes It is especially important since it was the first home computer on the market to use the ARM architecture and its own operating system: Arthur OS, developed by Castle Technology Limited and which later became called ARM OS.

Acorn Archimedes, 1987

The birth of ARM next to Apple and the end of Acorn Computers

In the HomeStretch of the eighties Acorn was evolving its technology, presenting ARMv2 architectures and preparing the ARMv3. It was then when Apple was interested in collaborating with Acorn to design a new processor for a device to be presented a few years later, in 1993: the Apple Newton, the first device in history be considered PDA (personal digital assistant). ARMv3 architecture design completed in those years and presented the family of ARM6 processors, composed of three models: ARM60, ARM600 and ARM610, the latter used in the first Newton MessagePad 100. But also something very important: due to the high workload, Acorn created a company exclusively ordered ARM design alongside Apple and VLSI Technology. Advanced RISC Machines Ltd was born in November 1990, that already in the year 1998 with its output is transformed into the current ARM Holdings.

In their first years of life ARM grew It is very notable and licensed their products to multiple companies like Intel (which presented the first XScale based ARMv5 architecture; the 27 June 2006 sold the business to Marvell) or IBM. Currently there are several dozen companies that create or have created ARM processors, many of them first-line in the technology landscape: the own Intel, IBM or Apple (who sold part of their shares of ARM Ltd. in 1999 for $ 59 million), but also Broadcom, Huawei, LGDEC, Qualcomm, AMD, RIM, Samsung, Panasonic, Sony or Texas Instruments , among many others.

On the other hand, Acorn Computers He started in the early 90s a decrease in free fall no sign of stopping. After modifying its organizational structure, Acorn wanted to introduce on the market’s first television on-demand systems, he continued in the education market and maintained collaboration with the BBC as well as their development of workstations for the professional market. Things did not work as in the previous decade, Olivetti sold its shares to Lehman Brothers in 1996 and all remained with losses growing older. In January 1999 the name was changed to Element 14 and in May began talks with MSDW Investment Holdings Limited, a subsidiary of Morgan Stanley, for the sale of the company. The agreement ended in June of the same year, when Element 14 sold for 270 million pounds.

A prototype of the Acorn Phoebe, 1998, one of his past teams that even came to market (via Wikipedia)

After that, Morgan Stanley played with Element 14 and ended up selling it as a manufacture of DSL to Broadcom. Shortly after, in November 2000, Element 14 became part of the business of Broadcom as a branch responsible for the design of DSL routers, and after it disappeared from the market.

ARM, the most important RISC architecture of history

In the previous post talked of RISC, We mentioned had to ARM as its Chief Representative in the current market. It is true that there are other architectures with the same approach, such as the IBM PowerPC or the MIPS32 and MIPS64 from MIPS Technologies, but its use is much lower than in the case of our main protagonist.

ARM was born as an architecture for use in computers and handheld, with the first devices Apple Newton as the first great device mobility. Today widened enormously devices that integrates: used in phones and tablets, of course, players and recorders (DVD, Blu-Ray, etc.), video game consoles, laptops or even modems and routers communication. But also TVs, refrigerators, washing machines or dishwashers, DECT phones or cars (that now included in so many functions). An ARM processor is used by the robot vacuum cleaners and even toys such as Lego Mindstorms NXT.

There is another rather unknown use but also fairly conventional: the use of ARM chips in microcontrollers management of other devices, such as a traditional hard drive or SSD. In the second case, when we refer to the included controller (for example SandForce) referring to a chip that integrates a processor based on ARM which is responsible to manage free and occupied memory positions, running TRIM and, more generally, to organize and manage the structure internal storage.

Indilinx Everest controller 2 Vertex 4 surrounded by chips of memory (via StorageReview)

All these uses of ARM processors exist because It is a very low-energy architecture, at least in comparison with the alternatives on the market. Many times it may even go unnoticed with respect to the consumption of other components of the device itself, for example in an electric car. In addition, the manufacture of these chips is pretty cheap, While it is true that often implementations requiring specific software that do tend to be more expensive than in other architectures such as x 86 most common of our computers. She will be the star of our next entry of this special.

What makes different ARM

Since the first commercial version back in mid-80s, ARM It has evolved with the passage of time and of course have been introduced new instructions with each version of the architecture, not only to improve the performance if not also the security. In Wikipedia there is a long list which includes architectures and kernels that have existed throughout the history of ARM, from the first ARMv1 (core ARM1) until the current ARMv7 (Cortex-A nuclei and Cortex-M and Cortex-R) or even the next ARMv8 (with the Cortex-A50) architecture that has already been designed and whose first products are expected for 2013.

There are also other manufacturers that have created their architectures based on MRAs, nowadays for example Qualcomm (and its Snapdragon ARMv7, Scorpion and Krait models), NVidia (Tegra in all their aspects), Apple (ARMv7 the last A6 and A6x) or Samsung (and its Exynos, so far all also based on ARMv7).

One of the main features of ARM is that uses relatively few transistors, or at least much less than the processors of other architectures. This allows you to acceptable performance with very low energy consumption, and not only that: making an ARM processor also is significantly cheaper, which makes them ideal in many cases.

What awaits us with ARM

More than twenty years ago since the birth of Advanced RISC Machines Ltd, ARM has grown very considerably both economically and technologically. We have already seen that it is an architecture that is used in almost any modern electronic device, and even many priori more traditional elements are adopting this technology to offer new features to users: for example the new robot vacuum cleaners (iRobot Roomba 570 uses an ARM7TDMI under the ARMv4 architecture) or even more technologically advanced toys (Lego Mindstorms NXT also integrates the ARM7TDMI in its bowels).

Diagram of servers from HP, HP Moonshot ARM project

In the current scenario of economic crisis and with a care for the growing nature, ARM is an option that is being studied for use in large data centers as a substitute for current architectures. Its main purpose is the of reduce costs related to the huge energy consumption, not only by own computers if not also by huge ventilation and security systems associated. ARM not only consumes less power if not that also generates less heat, Another very important feature in the data center. There are already several examples all over the world that have created systems of a few hundred processors, and even though they are not the most powerful (there is no ARM in the Top500 Supercomputers) do offer a performance more than decent for many, many more professional tasks of today. Is a question of time that ARM that known and prestigious list.

Today we can ensure that the future of ARM is very promising. They earn performance in each new generation of processors, they are maintaining – or even reducing – energy consumption, and if all off innovation has in mind to this architecture. The smart home concept will be based on ARM processors, the cars are starting to use them – and in not much time will be commonplace in our vehicles – as well as of course new concepts of gadgets that will appear in the next few years in the same way that not so long ago landed advanced phones, tablets, or e-books.

And not only that: users are modifying their concept of personal computer. We are in what many called the It was post-PC that ARM can be vital to get new types of portable devices and autonomous today unthinkable, but that they will be reasonable and technologically feasible within a few years.

Special Hardware architectures: index

  • I thus started it all: the origin of processors
  • II.-CISC to RISC, a battle in black and white
  • III.-ARM, the ‘Swiss army knife’ of processors