ARM-based microarchitecture — now a game-changer for general-purpose computing

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ARM The Next Big Thing In Personal Computing | eHomeUpgrade

My comments

I have previously mentioned about NVIDIA developing an ARM-based CPU/GPU chipset and have noticed that this class of RISC chipset is about to resurface in the desktop and laptop computer scene.

What is ARM and how it came about

Initially, Acorn, a British computer company well known for the BBC Model B computer which was used as part of the BBC’s computer-education program in the UK, had pushed on with a RISC processor-based computer in the late 1980s. This became a disaster due to the dominance of the IBM-PC and Apple Macintosh computer platforms as general-purpose computing platforms; even though Acorn were trying to push the computer as a multimedia computer for the classroom. This is although the Apple Macintosh and the Commodore Amiga, which were the multimedia computer platforms of that time, were based on Motorola RISC processors.

Luckily they didn’t give up on the RISC microprocessor and had this class of processor pushed into dedicated-purpose computer setups like set-top boxes, games consoles, mobile phones and PDAs. This chipset and class of microarchitecture became known as the ARM (Acorn RISC Microprocessor) chipset.

The benefit of these RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) class of microarchitecture was to achieve an efficient instruction set that suited the task-intensive requirements that graphics-rich multimedia computing offered; compared to the CISC (Complex Instruction Set Computing) microarchitecture that was practised primarily with Intel 80×86-based chipsets.

There was reduced interest in the RISC chipset due to Motorola pulling out of the processor game since the mid 2000s when they ceased manufacturing the PowerPC processors. Here, Apple had to build the Macintosh platform for the Intel Architecture because this was offering RISC performance at a cheaper cost to Apple; and started selling Intel-based Macintosh computers.

How is this coming about

An increasing number of processor makers who have made ARM-based microprocessors have pushed for these processors to return to general-purpose computing as a way of achieving power-efficient highly-capable computer systems.

This has come along with Microsoft offering a Windows build for the ARM microarchitecture as well as for the Intel microarchitecture. Similarly, Apple bought out a chipset designer when developed ARM-based chipsets.

What will this mean for software development

There will be a requirement for software to be built for the ARM microarchitecture as well as for the Intel microarchitecture because these work on totally different instruction sets. This may be easier for Apple and Macintosh software developers because when the Intel-based Macintosh computers came along, they had to work out a way of packaging software for the PowerPC and the Intel processor families. Apple marketed these software builds as being “Universal” software builds because of the need to suit the two main processor types.

Windows developers will be needing to head down this same path, especially if they work with orthodox code where they fully compile the programs to machine code themselves. This may not be as limiting for people who work with managed code like the Microsoft .NET platform because the runtime packages could just be prepared for the instruction set that the host computer uses.

Of course, Java programmers won’t need to face this challenge due to the language being designed around a “build once run anywhere” scheme with “virtual machines” that work between the computer and the compiled Java code.

For the consumer

This may require that people who run desktop or laptop computers that use ARM processors will need to look for packaged software or downloadable software that is distributed as an ARM build rather than for Intel processors. This may be made easier through the use of “universal” packages that are part of the software distribution requirement.

It may not worry people who run Java or similar programs because Oracle and others who stand behind these programming environments will be needing to port the runtime environments to these ARM systems.

Conclusion

This has certainly shown that the technology behind the chipsets that powered the computing environments that were considered more exciting through the late 1980s are now relevant in today’s computing life. These will even provide a competitive development field for the next generation of computer systems.

Next Windows to have ARM build as well as Intel build. Apple,used to delivering MacOS X for Motorola PowerPC RISC as well as Intel CPUs, to implement Apple ARM processors on Macintosh laptops.

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