Last week IBM and ARM Holdings Plc quietly announced a continuation of their collaboration on advanced process technology, this time with a stated goal of developing ARM IP optimized for IBM physical processes down to a future 14 nm size. The two companies have been collaborating on semiconductors and SOC design since 2007, and this extension has several important ramifications for both companies and their competitors.
It is a clear indication that IBM retains a major interest in low-power and mobile computing, despite its previous divestment of its desktop and laptop computers to Lenovo, and that it will be in a position to harvest this technology, particularly ARM's modular approach to composing SOC systems, for future productization.
For ARM, the implications are clear. Its latest announced product, the Cortex A15, which will probably appear in system-level products in approximately 2013, will be initially produced in 32 nm with a roadmap to 20nm. The existence of a roadmap to a potential 14 nm product serves notice that the new ARM architecture will have a process roadmap that will keep it on Intel’s heels for another decade. ARM has parallel alliances with TSMC and Samsung as well, and there is no reason to think that these will not be extended, but the IBM alliance is an additional insurance policy. As well as a source of semiconductor technology, IBM has a deep well of systems and CPU IP that certainly cannot hurt ARM.
So what does this mean for the prospects of ARM as a mainstream commercial server processor? While not sufficient, the assurance of a long-term roadmap for basic semiconductor process, with built-in risk mitigation in the form of multiple partners, is a necessary condition for ARM to present as a convincing alternative to Intel, which will certainly remain the 800 pound gorilla of semiconductor process technology, and will use its advanced technology and process economics as a competitive lever.
Combined with the recent uptick in other activities related to ARM servers, this is another positive indicator, and reinforces my conviction that we are poised to see a major disruption in the server landscape with the next 24 to 36 months.