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ARM CEO Simon Segars Lays Out His Vision

SANTA CLARA—There's an old story about a distinguished thinker—in some tellings, it's Bertrand Russell, in others, it's William James—who is confronted by a little old lady after a lecture on the nature of the cosmos. The woman objects to the scientist's description of star systems and galaxies, proclaiming that in fact, the Earth rests on the back of a giant turtle.

The scientist laughs and asks, "So what is the turtle resting on?" Another turtle, comes the confident reply. And what is that turtle standing on? "Oh, it's turtles all the way down," the little old lady says.

ARM CEO Simon Segars has his own variation of the turtle theory, only it's a lot more rooted in observable reality. And instead of turtles, it's ARM-based computer chips, which he believes will one day go "all the way down" —managing data every step of the way, from inside the servers powering the cloud, through networking and communications hardware, and out to mobile devices, embedded systems, and IoT devices on the edge of the network.

I had a chance to catch up with Segars this week at the ARM TechCon developer conference, where, during his keynote address, he rallied the troops with a call for a new wave of "invisible technology" which will make our homes smarter, our cars safer, our digital communications faster and more secure, and bring the power of computing to more parts of our lives, as unobtrusively as possible.

What he didn't talk about much was mobile, the market segment ARM has famously conquered over the past decade. The U.K.-based firm's processor architecture is used in chips powering the vast majority of smartphones and tablets which have been sold around the world.

Instead, Segars has been focused here at TechCon on pushing ARM's agenda in the data center, networking, and embedded markets.

"We're looking to lower the barrier to entry for the Internet of Things," Segars said. "We recently launched the ARM Cortex-M7 for high-end embedded applications and this week, we announced our Mbed software tools for IoT developers."

Those new products and tools, including the new 32-bit Cortex-M microcontroller and the Mbed IoT Device Platform, represent ARM's push into segments where chips based on the MIPS and POWER architectures are prevalent. That will change, Segars contended.

"It's a two-horse race now. There's x86, which is basically Intel, and there's ARM. There is still a lot of MIPS and POWER out there, but people who are designing the products of the future are designing ARM," he said.

Indeed, Advanced Micro Devices, the second-biggest maker of x86 chips, has an ARM license now and this week unveiled a new 64-bit ARM-based embedded processor designed for virtualizing networking and communications tasks. Applied Micro also chose TechCon to debut its new 64-bit ARM-based embedded HeliX chip series, while Freescale Semiconductor, which has its own proprietary chip architecture, is using the ARM instruction set to develop automotive, networking, and IoT products.

The Battle for the Data Center But where ARM is truly taking Intel head-on is in the data center. For Segars's vision of data flowing uninterrupted in a loop through ARM-based processors, chipsets, and microcontrollers without touching another instruction set, the dominance of x86 in servers will have to take a hit.

It's still very early days in that battle, but Segars pointed confidently to this week's announcement by Hewlett-Packard of the first commercially available 64-bit ARM-based server. HP's ProLiant m400 cartridge for its Moonshot server framework packs an Applied Micro X-Gene System-on-a-Chip (SoC) and runs Canonical's Ubuntu operating system.

AMD is also preparing to hit the market with 64-bit ARM server processors code named Seattle and is currently sampling those parts to partners.

Of course, many industry watchers expect ARM to face an uphill battle challenging Intel in the data center. The x86 architecture is mature, so firmly established in servers at this point, that analysts like Charles King cast serious doubts on the most optimistic projections for rapid adoption put forward by ARM and some of its most prominent partners.

"This year's TechCon set the stage for ARM's vision of what it hopes to accomplish during the next decade or so. The company's chip architecture has established a commanding presence in mobile computing with phones and tablets, but what ARM really wants to do is become a driving force in embedded technologies and the data center," King said.

"The former market is made for ARM since success depends on crafting technologies and solutions that deliver first-rate energy efficiency while also supporting top line programming tools, sophisticated networking, and related back-end technologies. The latter is a harder sell since, though there's certainly been a great deal of sturm und drang regarding ARM servers, effective products and success stories have been harder to find."

Segars, though, argues that a few crucial factors help ARM's expansion move along faster than some are predicting. In the IoT and embedded spaces, he points to the established semiconductor foundry system as reducing the cost of entry for companies designing computer chips. The Maker movement, meanwhile, has the potential to foster hardware innovation by even the smallest of players, even calling back to the garage-based startups of the early days of Silicon Valley.

As for the data center, Segars said in an interview with PCMag earlier this year that he believed ARM servers will be deployed very quickly in certain environments.

"[T]he big scale-out guys who develop their own environments and their own software, they can actually change things pretty quickly ... they're able to experiment and roll things out because they're in control of their own destiny and not reliant on big software companies forcing them to follow schedules and timelines. I think that in environments like that, the opportunity to experiment and try things and roll things out is actually very rapid," he said.

If Segars is correct, it really could be ARM all the way down, sooner rather than later.

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