Move over Intel

Make room for the old kid on the block.

by Ed Sawicki - June 22, 2020

Fugaku supercomputer
Fugaku supercomputer uses ARM

Two news stories occurred on Monday, June 22, 2020, that, taken together, will change how we think about computers and branding like Intel InsideTM. The first was Apple's announcement that they will start using ARM processors in their notebook and desktop products. These products have used Intel processors exclusively for about two decades. Apple's mobile products, such as iPhone and iPad, have always used ARM.

The second story was about an organization called TOP500.org, announcing that the world's fastest supercomputer is now one that uses ARM processors. It's about twice as fast as the previous fastest computer. A supercomputer using Intel processors hasn't been in the top spot since November 2015.

This is good news for consumers of non-mobile computers who have been locked into a near processor monopoly for the past few decades. While Intel had a few competitors—AMD was one—those competitive products were still Intel instruction set work-alike processors. This move by Apple helps break that stranglehold.

This won't be good news for places with concentrations of Intel work sites, like Oregon and Arizona. There was already talk of Intel implementing cost-cutting moves in Hillsboro, Oregon.

What's an ARM?

The ARM processor family has been with us since the 1980s, originally appearing in the BBC Micro computer in the UK. Since that time, we've had ARM processors in devices besides computers in vastly increasing numbers. Many more ARM processors are used in devices other than personal computers than Intel.

All Apple iPhones and iPads use some version of the ARM processor, which Apple calls the A5, A6, A7, etc. Apple's latest ARM-based processor is called the A14 that's used in the iPhone 12. You'll find the ARM used in most Android devices, and many (or most) Microsoft Windows mobile devices. It's the processor used in the popular Raspberry Pi and Arduino small computers.

The world's fastest computer is based on the Fujitsu 48-core A64FX SoC, an ARM processor. Does this mean that all ARM processors are manufactured by Fujitsu? No. The company that designs the ARM processors does not build them. Instead, its designs are licensed by other companies who do the manufacturing. Dozens of manufacturers license the ARM design. Apple's A-series of processors are built by Samsung and TSMC.

Fugaku floor space
Figaku supercomputer floor space

Updates

September 13, 2020: Nvidia announced that they are acquiring ARM for US$40 billion.

November 10, 2020: Apple announces products based on the M1 SoC.

October 18, 2021: Apple announces the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors that power their latest Macbook Pros, with substantial improvements in performance/power ratings.

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