Cisco and Netgear line up behind new Helix 64-bit ARM chips

AppliedMicro is looking to disrupt the embedded chip market with the new SOC

AppliedMicro has announced a new family of 64-bit ARM chips that could disrupt the stodgy but sizeable market for components used in network routers, printers and other "embedded" equipment.

Cisco Systems, Netgear and Hewlett-Packard were among the vendors at a press conference Wednesday that said they're exploring the chips, which will be sold under the brand Helix starting in 2015.

AppliedMicro makes the X-Gene system-on-chip used in Hewlett-Packard's latest Moonshot server, which went on sale this week and became the first 64-bit ARM server to hit the market.

Helix is based on the same ARMv8 core as X-Gene, but it's offered in a variety of configurations for use in network and storage gear, as well as printers and factory robots.

Those markets have been dominated by PowerPC and MIPS designs, as well as 32-bit ARM chips from AppliedMicro and others. But PowerPC and MIPS have been in decline, and equipment makers are looking for a new platform with enough performance to see them through the next few years.

Intel has been trying to position its x86 chips for the job, and now AppliedMicro is stepping up with 64-bit ARM.

Cisco uses a mixture of MIPS, PowerPC and x86, but it would like to standardize on one architecture, said Pradeep Kathail, a chief software architect at Cisco, speaking at an AppliedMicro press event at ARM TechCon.

It likes ARM because of the wide choice of chip vendors, he said. ARM chips are designed by a U.K. company of the same name, which licenses its architecture for use by dozens of vendors.

Cisco is exploring Helix in particular because it needs a 64-bit architecture for the routers and switches at the edge of networks, which need to handle ever greater amounts of traffic, he said.

"It's the power of the ecosystem," Kathail said. "ARM has 50 licensees, and as we see that community migrate to 64 bits, the power of innovation will be exponential."

Netgear also wants to standardize on one architecture, and it will need a 64-bit design as 10-Gigabit Ethernet spreads more widely throughout its product line, said CTO Jeff Capone.

Canonical, which makes the Ubuntu OS; Wind River, which makes an embedded OS; and Konica, which makes printers, were also at the press conference to back Helix.

Applied Micro still needs to get the chips from testing into production, which isn't a trivial feat for a brand-new family of products. Its X-Gene chip took longer than AppliedMicro originally said it would to find its way into a product.

Helix is sampling now and will be in production in 2015, CEO Paramesh Gopi said Wednesday. "Our customers have tasted a bit of the Helix juice and we already have design wins," he bragged.

It will span a wide range of performance needs. One chip for routers will have four Helix cores running at 1.2Ghz and support fanless designs, AppliedMicro says. Most chips in that class today require fans for cooling, which runs up electricity costs.

A more powerful version will have eight 2.4Ghz cores for use in Layer 2 to Layer 4 switching equipment.

Chip maker Imagination Technologies acquired the MIPS architecture and has been trying to revive it, but it doesn't seem to be attracting many new adherents, said industry analyst Nathan Brookwood of Insight64.

"ARM has so much momentum that it's going to be very hard, I think, for anyone else," he said.

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights & Strategy, sees it as a two-horse race between ARM and x86.

"With the new 64-bit capabilities of this ARM-based embedded CPU, Helix has an opportunity to fit into a wider range of designs that might not have considered ARM before," he wrote in a piece on Forbes.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's e-mail address is james_niccolai@idg.com

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