New Chip War is Looming: Intel Versus ARM Architecture

According to Wired, a new chip war is on the way. For years, most of the massive data centers that power the Internet have been driven by Intel microprocessors. But in the coming months, a group of chip makers hopes to challenge the company with a new breed of processors based on ARM architecture, which is the same basic chip design found in most of the world’s smartphones.

“These chips promise to significantly reduce the power consumed by the modern server, and that’s certainly an attractive prospect for Facebook and other companies that now run their Web services atop tens of thousands of machines,” writes Wired. But Intel has an answer, it adds. “The chip giant is preparing its own low-power server processors based on the Atom chips it originally built for mobile devices.”

So which chip architecture is better? According to research from University of Wisconsin, Madison, neither one has an advantage over the other regarding power consumption.

The researchers came to this conclusion by studying the chips’ instruction sets, which are the rules that define the basic operation of the processor. “ARM chips and Intel chips use different instruction sets. That’s the fundamental difference between the two competing products. But tests run by the researchers indicate that when it comes to fundamental energy efficiency, both instruction sets are in the same ballpark,” summarizes the article.

“Of course, the difference in instruction set will affect things in other ways. A move to ARM will require some changes to software running atop today’s servers,” notes the article. “Forrest Norrod — who oversees the server business at Dell, one of the world’s largest server sellers — questions whether companies will want to maintain two software platforms (one for ARM and one for Intel). But this is a separate issue.”

Even so, Wired explains: “The larger point is that these new ARM server chips provide the Facebooks of the world with more choice — and that can’t be underestimated.”