IBM Takes Broad ARM License at 32-bit

25 October 2013

IBM Corp. said Thursday (Oct. 24) it licensed several 32-bit Cortex processor cores from ARM Holdings plc. IBM plans to offer the cores to custom-chip clients that require processors for network routers, switches and cellular basestations, but for now it is not taking ARM inside the data center.

The broad licensing deal covers the Cortex-A15, Cortex-A12, Cortex-A7 and Cortex-M4 processor cores, as well as the Mali-450 graphics cores and will bolster IBM's system-on-chip offering for networking and communications, IBM said, in a statement.

Notably all the referenced cores are based on the ARMv7 instruction set architecture and offer 32-bit addressing but not the 64-bit capability for which ARM has more advanced cores on offer. These ARMv8-A cores—such as the Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53—are used by a growing number of licensees in server processors for data centers.

In August, Google, IBM, Nvidia and others announced plans to form the OpenPOWER Consortium based on IBM's POWER microprocessor architecture. The consortium members will work together to address server, networking and GPU-acceleration technology for data centers, IBM said at the time. In addition the announcement disclosed plans to open up POWER intellectual property, both hardware and software, to licensing by others in a manner similar to the business model used by ARM.

However, use of the POWER architecture has been on the decline over several years. Apple dropped it from its Mac computers in 2006 and after early success in games consoles POWER is being designed out there. Freescale has offered the POWER architecture devices into embedded and automotive applications but is starting to make increased use of ARM licensing in those domains.

ARM and IBM have a long history of collaboration but mainly with regard to physical intellectual property as IBM has worked to transfer IC manufacturing process research out to chip makers such as Samsung, Globalfoundries through the Common Platform Alliance.

A spokesperson for ARM said: "The deal is just for ARMv7 cores and system IP. IBM has licensed processors before, but at nowhere near this scale."

"IBM is a top provider of custom-built, system-on-a-chip technology to communications companies—the silicon technology that has powered much of the mobile computing revolution," said Steve Ray, vice president of microelectronics at IBM, in a statement. "With the addition of the ARM's advanced 32-bit microprocessors and peripherals, our clients will now have the broadest array of leading silicon technology and design services available—giving them the ability to create the next generation of communications hardware."

In the same statement Tom Cronk, general manager of ARM's processor division, said: "Building on their long-standing engagement on ARM Artisan Physical IP, IBM's extensive commitment to ARM Cortex CPU and ARM Mali GPU technology reflects the increasing demand for optimized-for-function, energy efficient platforms."

The IBM licenses are thought to be part of a record number signed by ARM in the third quarter of 2013.

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