Is it time to abandon Intel?
Mobile is everywhere. RIP Intel and AMD
Apple just announced their first Apple Silicon based Mac. This is going to be running an ARM architecture rather than the Intel or AMD x86 processors they have used for many years.
So, what’s the big deal?
ARM is the architecture used in mobile phones and tablets (think iOS, iPad, Samsung phones, etc.) and other low power devices. The fact that ARM processors are moving into PCs means that a major shift is occurring in the microprocessor industry.
ARM vs x86
ARM stands for “Advanced RISC Machine.” RISC stands for reduced instruction set computing and is designed to create chips with lower power consumption and better heat dissipation.
Conversely, x86 architecture uses CISC, or complex instruction set computing, which is designed to allow for greater speed.
What we are now seeing is that ARM processors have become powerful enough to compete on compute performance with x86.
NVIDIA recently purchased the rights to ARM for $40 billion USD. The processor market is experiencing a disruptive shift.
Advantages of ARM
Here’s an excerpt from Microsoft on the benefits of ARM:
- Battery life that goes beyond all-day. You’ll use less power than you would with other PCs, so you can go through a typical work or school day without running out of battery or worrying about finding an outlet to plug into. If you want to use your PC for something more fun, you can play videos stored on your PC for many hours without charging your battery in between.
- Turn on instantly. When you’re not using your PC, just press the power button like you do on your mobile phone to turn off the screen. When you take out your PC and turn it back on, it turns on instantly. Whenever you have a few minutes in between classes, meetings, or other activities, you can get things done without waiting for your PC to start.
What this means for consumers
Shifting a desktop operating system to run on ARM is no easy task. It involves rewriting software to be optimised for the architecture – known as an ARM64 build. However, Microsoft’s endeavour with Windows on ARM can be seen with their Surface Pro X and Apple is about to announce their first hardware entry into ARM with their new MacBook.
Other PC makers are likely to start to get serious and follow suit, especially as Microsoft develops native ARM64 releases for all their Office 365 products. Microsoft Teams, and Edge for example, now have a native ARM64 release. Developers have been able to make ARM64 applications since 2018. There is a Windows ARM64 build available for insider preview as well.
For early adopters, the experience may not be completely pain free. Computers running an ARM processor are incompatible with x86 64-bit programs. They can run x86 32-bit programs but will see a performance reduction. When the Surface Pro X was initially released, incompatible apps were being displayed in the Microsoft App Store, though this has since been corrected. Apple may run into similar problems when their new MacBook is released – keep an eye out for that.
3rd party apps are likely to lag and wide-spread availability of ARM64 applications may take some time. However, with both Microsoft and Apple offering consumer hardware running ARM, software vendors are likely to adapt quickly.
What businesses will see
Businesses will see the effects as well – and this may even be the more exciting aspect. VMware recently announced they have successfully ported ESXi to ARM. Amazon are already at version two of their ARM servers, aptly named AWS Graviton2, and are offering a 40% better price performance over comparable x86 servers.
If ARM processors successfully penetrate the public cloud space, expect that prices for cloud computing will continue to fall. Data centers will be smaller, consume less power and generate less heat. All this is great for the environment and great for cost savings.
The savings for large enterprise companies like Amazon also apply at a smaller scale. ARM personal computers are less expensive.
Savings for businesses using ARM computers
ARM processors consume less energy and produce less heat. So What? You may not be running a data center, but if we ever do get back to working in offices, you can expect a lower electricity bill if your employees are using ARM PCs.
Because ARM processors produce less heat, they don’t need fans. This means your fleet of laptops will not draw power for active cooling. Further ARM chips function with lower wattage than x86 processors so there will be less power drawn when your employees work.
In the soft cost category, ARM devices are always-on and always-connected so there will be slight time savings by employees when start and returning to work.
In the more distant future, it may be that ARM PCs will run off cellular networks such as 5G and businesses may skip building an internal wired or wifi network entirely.
So, what does this actually mean?
We are heading towards a future where ‘mobile’ is becoming the standard and the lines between a smartphone and PC continue to be blurred. Expect this trend to grow and expect Intel and AMD to struggle as device manufacturers move away from the x86 architecture.
NVIDIA plans to use ARM for artificial intelligence, 80-core+ server CPUs using ARM are already being sold. The technology is greener than x86 and provides both real and soft cost advantages.
However, if you’re looking to do a device refresh very soon it may not yet be time to abandon x86. The industry is moving but widespread software availability has yet to be reached.
Keep an eye out in 2021. By the end of the year it may be time to abandon Intel.
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