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Applied Micro: Get lost, PowerPC! We're flinging 64-bit ARM HeliX cores at robots next year

HP's Moonshot buddy is getting boisterous

ARM TechCon Applied Micro revealed today that it will ship 64-bit ARM-compatible embedded processors dubbed HeliX sometime next year – leaving behind its legacy PowerPC range of chips.

"HeliX is sampling today and it will ship in 2015. We will have production parts shipping that year. It's a done deal," Applied Micro CEO Paramesh Gopi said at ARM TechCon in Santa Clara, California on Wednesday. Cisco, Netgear and HP are understood to be mulling over the new silicon for their products.

The new parts are essentially the company's X-Gene 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture, used in HP Moonshot servers, but cut down to fit embedded devices. Applied Micro is dreaming of Helix SoCs in robots, document scanners, network switches, and so on; mobile phones and tablets need not apply.

"We're taking the same technology in X-gene, and all its reliability, and taking it to the embedded space. This is not just a PowerPoint. Go touch the systems. They're real," Gopi said, gesturing out toward the TechCon expo space.

He also took a swipe at his FinFET-fabricating rivals: "We don't have to build you a FinFET to give you a fan-less product."

Feeds and speeds

Applied Micro's first new design, the APM887208-H1 HeliX system-on-chip (SoC), comes with four or eight ARMv8-A cores running up to 2.4GHz, a shared 8MB L3 cache with the usual coherency controls, and two DDR3 RAM controllers.

Also baked into the silicon are hardware to accelerate AES and other algorithms used in IPsec, SSL, TLS and DTLS encryption; a random number generator; a DMA engine with RAID 5/6 offload; four ARM Cortex-A5 coprocessors to soak up extra work; two 10GE controllers; four 1GE interfaces with classification and virtualization; up to five PCIe gen-3 controllers; USB 3.0; six SATA 3.0 ports; four serial ports; GPIOs and JTAG; and a partridge in a pear tree.

The chips are fabricated using a 40-nanometer process. The four-core version has a thermal design point (TDP) of 25W, while the eight-core package has a TDP of 42W. It's supposed to be a workhorse in storage and communications gear.

Meanwhile, the APM887104-H2 HeliX SoC has two to four 64-bit ARMv8-A cores, clocking up to 2.0GHz; virtualized I/O; a low-power standby state below 250mW; the same sort of offload accelerators as the H1; two USB 3.0 host interfaces; three PCIe gen-3 controllers; one SATA 3.0 port; and 2MB of shared L3 cache.

This part is built using a 28-nanometer process, and is essentially a lower-power version of the H1. It should have a TDP of 8W with two cores and 16W with four cores.

While Applied Micro licensed ARM's 64-bit architecture for servers back in 2010, it's been dabbling with IBM's PowerPC chips for embedded products – until now, that is. The love story is over, it seems, and Applied Micro is throwing itself head first into the ARM world.

"We're taking our PowerPC heritage and using it as a stepping stone: we're really changing all of our embedded-based business to be an ARM 64-bit-based business," said Gopi.

"HeliX represents an exciting part of our base business, and it's catching up with our server target market. Embedded is a huge market for us, and now we're leveraging what we already have to move into new markets."

Speaking of which, Gopi identified four markets where he hopes HeliX SoCs will find homes: networking gear such as routers and switches, document-scanning and other imaging products, data center storage rigs, and industrial control systems such as robots for assembly lines and power plants.


It's ARM TechCon, so obviously everyone's hyped up on the Brit processor core design biz's Kool-Aid. The mood appears to be that developers are weary of supporting all of PowerPC, MIPS, and ARM in their codebases, preferring to pick just one.

"We want to buy chips from a number of [silicon] vendors, but reduce the number of architectures we have to support," said Pradeep Kathail, Cisco's chief software architect in its network operating system group.

"There's very little going on in PowerPC, and limited things going on in MIPS. So the ARMv8 architecture makes sense to us. Routing tables these days are huge. We need 64-bit and we need ARM's power efficiencies.

"For networking gear, what's in the system-on-chip is very important: we need crypto acceleration, and the ability to distribute workloads over multiple cores and offload engines. But we need to make sure we have communality across all the system-on-chips, so we don't have to port our code to each SoC. For the software, each chip must look the same."

Keith Shea, VP of alliances and business development at embedded OS maker Wind River, agreed, adding that 64-bit workloads are becoming commonplace across multiple industries.

"In automotive, and IoT as it expands, and in the communications space, 64-bit is becoming a more obvious choice for compute workloads, which are being pushed to the edges of networks," Shea said. "To get a small footprint and power efficiency, it makes sense to adopt ARMv8. It's the power of the ecosystem; that community alone is enough to attract developers." ®


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