AMD's Project Skybridge unites x86 and ARM, brings Android support

AMD is bringing x86 and ARM together, and will bring Android to ARM chips next year through Project Skybridge

Advanced Micro Devices is bridging the gap between the x86 and ARM chip architectures and is also bringing Android support to its chips next year through a new development effort called Project Skybridge.

Project Skybridge will provide the plumbing for ARM and x86 cores to be combined on hardware, and new chips based on the architectures will be released by AMD in 2015. The x86 and ARM chips will be pin-compatible, thus making it possible to configure both chips on a single motherboard.

Different motherboards are currently required for x86 and ARM chips, and it's expensive for developers and users alike to support disparate architectures, said Lisa Su, general manager of AMD's global business units, during a press event that was webcast.

"This is the beginning of the family of products that will offer customers capability and flexibility," Su said. "It's going to be ARM and x86. These are the two most important architectures."

AMD showed a Project Skybridge chart where a combined x86-ARM system could support Windows, Linux and Android. Su said Skybridge products are targeted at embedded and client devices, which could include tablets. Tablets with AMD chips currently are available with Microsoft's Windows 8.1, but it is possible to run Android applications through a Bluestacks virtual layer.

The ARM-based chip will be based on the Cortex-A57 processor design, which is 64-bit and will be AMD's first chip to support Android, Su said. The x86 chip will be based on the Puma+ core, which is being used in the recently launched Mullins tablet and Beema laptop chips. With pin compatibility, Skybridge parts could be soldered down on a motherboard.

AMD has so far shied away from supporting Android on its chips. The company has said it will not bring Android to x86 chips as the OS runs best on ARM processors.

The ARM and x86 chips will be made using the 20-nanometer process, and could be combined with AMD's latest GPUs to speed up graphics, math and technical programs. Device makers will be able to combine any number of x86 and ARM cores in products.

AMD's Su said Skybridge could be used in networking hardware, which use disparate architectures for tasks. For example, AMD's Project Skybridge could provide one product that could use x86 for the high-end control plane and ARM for low-end processing. Such an implementation could reduce hardware and software costs, Su said.

"It's way too expensive to support disparate architectures in an ecosystem," Su said. "It's really about simplifying that use case... for a given software ecosystem."

But the company won't go into low-cost smartphones, Su said, adding that "it isn't in our DNA."

Project Skybridge is an example of AMD's implementation of a chip design methodology established in 2012, in which multiple intellectual property blocks can be patched together on a computing system. To expand beyond x86, AMD licensed ARM architecture, which is dominant in mobile devices and is gaining steam in servers. AMD's first use of the ARM architecture was for a Cortex-A5 core that provided security, such as authentication, for PC chips.

AMD started shipping its first ARM-based server chip, code-named Seattle, to customers in January this year, and end products are expected to come out next year. At the press event, AMD demonstrated a Seattle server handling Web hosting and web page rendering through the LAMP -- Linux OS, Apache Web server, MySQL database and programming languages Perl/Python/PHP -- software stack.

Chips resulting from Project Skybridge could find a use in servers like Hewlett-Packard's Project Moonshot, a dense server that aims to combine x86 and ARM processors in a single chassis. The Facebook-backed Open Computer Project has provided specifications for a slot that is compatible with both AMD and x86 processors. However, AMD officials did not say whether the Project Skybridge methodology would be applied to server hardware.

AMD is fighting for its survival in servers, and is relying on ARM for a renewed push that the company hopes will help it regain market share. Its server processor market share was just 2.8 percent in the first quarter of 2014, down from 4.7 percent in the same quarter the previous year, according to Mercury Research. Intel had a 97.2 percent market share during the first quarter this year. At its peak during the second quarter of 2006, AMD held a 26.2 percent market share.

AMD is using a standard Cortex-A57 design from its initial ARM chips, but its developing its own ARM processor core called K12, which will reach products in 2016.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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