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AMD to plunk ARM core onto Fusion, Opteron chips

Don't get too excited – it only runs TrustZone security

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In February, when the new management team at Advanced Micro Devices presented revised roadmaps for PC and server processors that were a bit more conservative than what the old AMD might have drawn up, the company's top techies hinted that they were interested in integrating other intellectual property into Fusion and Opteron processors. And now we find out that one of those things is an ARM core.

Lisa Su, a semiconductor researcher at IBM and former CTO at Freescale Semiconductor who was hired back in December as senior vice president and general manager of AMD's new Global Business Units, wants to be crystal clear that AMD is not getting into the ARM chip business. What AMD is doing, she says, is etching a single Cortex-A5 chip onto future Fusion and Opteron chips – not to compute, but to run the TrustZone security created by ARM.

First delivered in 2004, TrustZone is a combination of hardware features in the ARM processor, bus fabric, and peripheral buses and software that runs beside the operating system to create a secure boot environment and to isolate the security software from outside attack. It is, in effect, an ARMed rent-a-cop for x86 chips.

"Adopting the security infrastructure that ARM is providing gives us the opportunity to unify a security model," Su tells El Reg. She says that the die size of the single-core Cortex-A5 is small and won't affect the overall complexity of the chip. "One should not overread into what we are doing. We have talked about being more flexible and leveraging third party IP, and that is what this is."

The first AMD chip to get the ARM core and TrustZone support is the future "Kabini" kicker to the "Brazos 2.0" Fusion APU, which is slated to come out in 2013. Subsequent Fusion APUs will also get the TrustZone core throughout 2014, and it will eventually be woven into the Opteron server chips as well, says Su. Although she did not elaborate on the schedule for when it will be added to the server variants of the AMD processors.

With Intel being an ARM licensee, this could start a whole new trend. But Intel has its own ideas about Trusted Execution Technology (TXT) and weaving its McAfee security software into the Core and Xeon processors.

In a somewhat related item, AMD has hooked up with ARM, Texas Instruments, MediaTek, and Imagination Technologies to create an industry consortium called the HSA Foundation. HSA is short for heterogeneous system architecture, and it will try to promote standard in hybrid computing, mixing CPUs with other kinds of processors such as GPUs that are increasingly embedded in processors used in PCs, smartphones, and other mobile devices and electronics. IT vendors, academics, software developers, and anyone else interested in parallel computing are being encouraged to join up.

If you have been in the IT industry for a while, you probably can't recall all of the industry consortia that have come and gone and it is hard not to be cynical.

What is also clear is that chip makers have to act to help move the parallel and hybrid computing effort along, and AMD is at least doing something. "This is the most efficient way to do computing," says Su. "We just need to get our heads around the idea that this is doable." Su says that the HSA Foundation can help, but concedes that the industry will have to do more than this to tackle the hybrid programming issue.

That will probably mean getting Intel, AMD and friends, and Nvidia into a room and working together on some standards – something that they may all talk about, but probably don't really want to do just yet. ®

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