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ARM flexes muscles with fivefold performance boost

Kicks sand in Intel's face

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ARM's next-but-one processor will improve performance by five times, and the company aims to spread the architecture into the server side of the cloud too.

The Cortex A15 will consume the same energy as today's ARM chips, but will sport as many as 16 cores running at 2.5GHz, though a dual-core version will come first. ARM reckons that puts the chip in contention for cloud servers as well as mobile handsets, where ARM already has almost complete dominance.

ARM doesn't make chips; it licences the design. That model has proved hugely successful and the vast majority of mobile phones feature at least one ARM core - often several - making ARM the embedded architecture of choice. Even the iPhone, with its Apple branding and Samsung-supplied processors, has an ARM in its heart, and smartphones are proving surprisingly voracious in their consumption of processing power.

Qualcomm has recently been showing off the evolution its own ARM variant, the Snapdragon. A 1GHz version of the Snapdragon already powers some of the more interesting smartphones, and Qualcomm has started shipping a 1.2GHz, dual-core, version and plans to up the speed to 1.5GHz next year.

But ARM isn't content with its domination of the mobile sphere - the Cortex A15 MPCore has aspirations of powering enterprise servers too, taking the fight to Intel's home turf.

Microsoft is one of the most interesting ARM licensees with aspirations beyond mobile telephony. Redmond holds an ARM architecture licence that is more comprehensive than would be necessary to make ARM-based processors or use them, so Microsoft obviously has something big in mind. We're betting on a next-generation X-Box but we'll have to wait and see.

PC World talked to Nathan Brookwood of Insight64, who reckoned that ARM's 32-bit root would slow down any assault on the server industry, and that ARM would have to make the jump to 64 bits if it's going to provide the kind of decent memory addressing that large-scale enterprises need - though the company has suggested it can bodge that.

Either way, it's not going to happen for a while. ARM's next processor, the Cortex A9, won't be shipping until the end of this year, with devices expected during 2011. That puts the first A15-based devices towards the end of 2012 at best, no matter what shape and size they are. ®

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