Nvidia announced on Sunday evening that it has reached an agreement to acquire Arm Limited from SoftBank for a cool $40 billion.
In this age of headlines that use the b-word in place of nine zeros it’s easy to lose track, so you may be wondering, didn’t SoftBank just buy Arm? That was all the way back in July of 2016 to the tune of $32 billion. SoftBank is a holding company, so that deal didn’t ruffle any feathers, but this week’s move by Nvidia might.
Arm Limited is the company behind the ARM architecture, but they don’t actually produce the chips themselves, instead licensing them to other companies who pay a fee to use the core design and build their own chip around it. Nvidia licenses the ARM core for some of their chips, and with this deal they will be in a position to set terms for how their competitors may license the ARM core. The deal still needs regulatory approval so time will tell if this becomes a kink in the acquisition plan.
There’s a good chance that you’re reading this article on a device that contains an ARM processor because of its dominance in the smartphone and tablet market. Although less common in the laptop market, and nearly unheard of in the desktop market, the tide may be changing as Apple announced early in the summer that their Mac line will be moving to ARM.
Chances are you know the Nvidia name for their role as purveyors of fine graphics cards. They got a major boost as the world ramped up Bitcoin and other cryptocurrency mining hardware which early on was mainly based on the heavy lifting of graphics processors. But the company also has their eye on the ongoing wave of hardware targeting AI applications like computer vision. Nvidia’s line of Jetson boards, marketed for “next-generation autonomous machines”, all feature ARM cores.
Assuming the deal goes through without a hitch, what will be the fallout? Your guess is as good ours. There is certainly a conflict of interest in a company who competes in the ARM market owning the Arm. But it’s impossible to say what efforts they will make to firewall those parts of the business. Some might predict a mass exodus from the ARM ecosystem in favor of an open standard like RISC-V, but that is unlikely in the near-term. Momentum is difficult to overcome — look at how long it took ARM to climb that mountain and it was primarily the advent of a new mobile ecosystem lacking an established dominant player that let ARM thrive.
Any modern computer with an x86 processor, whether it’s Intel or AMD, is a lost cause for software freedom and privacy. We harp on this a lot, but it’s worth repeating that it’s nearly impossible to get free, open-source firmware to run on them thanks to the Intel Management Engine (IME) and the AMD Platform Security Processor (PSP). Without libre firmware there’s no way to trust anything else, even if your operating system is completely open-source.
The IME or PSP have access to memory, storage, and the network stack even if the computer is shut down, and even after the computer boots they run at such a low level that the operating system can’t be aware of what they’re really doing. Luckily, there’s a dark horse in the race in the personal computing world that gives us some hope that one day there will be an x86 competitor that allows their users to have a free firmware that they can trust. ARM processors, which have been steadily increasing their user share for years but are seeing a surge of interest since the recent announcement by Apple, are poised to take over the personal computing world and hopefully allow us some relevant, modern options for those concerned with freedom and privacy. But in the real world of ARM processors the road ahead will decidedly long, windy, and forked.
Even ignoring tedious nitpicks that the distinction between RISC vs CISC is more blurred now than it was “back in the day”, RISC machines like ARM have a natural leg up on the x86 CISC machines built by Intel and AMD. These RISC machines use fewer instructions and perform with much more thermal efficiency than their x86 competitors. They can often be passively cooled, avoiding need to be actively cooled, unlike many AMD/Intel machines that often have noisy or bulky fans. But for me, the most interesting advantage is the ability to run ARM machines without the proprietary firmware present with x86 chips.
Continue reading “Degrees Of Freedom: Booting ARM Processors”
Most readers will be aware of the various distributed computing projects that provide supercomputer-level resources to researchers by farming out the computing tasks across a multitude of distributed CPUs and GPUs. The best known of these are probably Folding@Home and Rosetta, which have both this year been performing sterling service in the quest to understand the mechanisms of the SARS COVID-19 virus. So far these two platforms have remained available nearly exclusively for Intel-derived architectures, leaving the vast number of ARM-based devices out in the cold. It’s something the commercial distributed-computing-on-your-phone company Neocortix have addressed, as they have successfully produced ARM64 clients for both platforms that will be incorporated into the official clients in due course.
So it seems that mundane devices such as mobile phones and the more capable Raspberry Pi boards will now be able to fold proteins like a boss, and the overall efforts to deliver computational research will receive a welcome boost. But will there be any other benefits? It’s a Received Opinion that ARM chips are more power-efficient than their Intel-derived cousins, but will this deliver more energy-efficient distributed computing? The answer is “probably”, but the jury’s out on that one as computationally intensive tasks are said to erode the advantage significantly.
Folding@Home was catapulted by the influx of COVID-19 volunteers into first place as the world’s largest supercomputer earlier this year, and we’re pleased to say that Hackaday readers have played their part in that story. As this is being written the July 2020 stats show our team ranked at #39 worldwide, having racked up 14,005,664,882 points across 824,842 work units. Well done everybody, and we look forward to your ARM phones and other devices boosting that figure. If you haven’t done so yet, download the client and join us..
Via HPCwire. Thanks to our colleague [Sophi] for the tip.
At its annual World Wide Developer Conference, Apple dropped many jaws when announcing that their Mac line will be switching away from Intel processors before the year is out. Intel’s x86 architecture is the third to grace Apple’s desktop computer products, succeeding PowerPC and the Motorola 68000 family before it.
In its place will be Apple’s own custom silicon, based on 64-bit ARM architecture. Apple are by no means the first to try and bring ARM chips to bear for general purpose computing, but can they succeed where others have failed?
Continue reading “Ditching X86, Apple Starts An ARM Race”
Who hasn’t dreamed of pulling together some gadget in their garage and turning it into a big business? Of course, most gadgets today have a CPU in them, and Arm CPUs power just about any kind of embedded device you can think of. If you just want to use a chip, that’s easy. You buy them from a licensee and you use their tools for development. But if you want to integrate ARM’s devices into your own chips, that’s a different story. You have to pay fees, buy tools, and pay licenses on each chip you produce. Until now. Arm’s flexible access for startups program will let you apply to get all of that free.
To qualify, you have to be an “early stage silicon startup with limited funding.” Normally, flexible access costs about $75,000 to $200,000 a year and that doesn’t cover your license fees and royalties. The plan offered to qualifying startups is the $75,000 package, but that still includes access to nearly all Arm products, technical support, a few introductory training credits, and development tools. After your first tape-out, though, it looks as though you’ll have to pony up.
Continue reading “Arm Gives Gift To Startups: Zero Cost”
[Buttim] loses his car a lot, which might sound a little bit like the plot from an early-00s movie, but he assures us that it’s a common enough thing. In a big city, and after several days of not driving one’s car, it can be possible to at least forget where you parked. There are a lot of ways of solving this problem, but the solution almost fell right into his lap: repurposing a lock from a bike share bicycle. (The build is in three parts: Part 2 and Part 3.)
These locks are loaded with features, like GPS, a cellular modem, accelerometers, and in this case, an ARM processor. It took a huge amount of work for [Buttim] to get anything to work on the device, but after using a vulnerability to dump the firmware and load his own code on the device, spending an enormous amount of time trying to figure out where all the circuit traces went through layers of insulation intended to harden the lock from humidity, and building his own Python-based programmer for it, he has basically free reign over the device.
To that end, once he figured out how it all worked, he put it to use in his car. The device functions as a GPS tracker and reports its location over the cellular network so it can’t become lost again. As a bonus, he was able to use the accelerometers to alert him if his car was moving without him knowing, so it turned into a theft deterrent as well. Besides that, though, his ability to get into the device’s firmware reminded us of a recent attempt to get access to an ARM platform.
We all think we could use a third arm from time to time, but when we actually play this thought experiment out in our heads we’ll eventually come to the same hurdle [caltadaniel] found, which is a lack of a controller. His third arm isn’t just an idea, though. It’s a Yaskawa industrial robot that he was able to source for pretty cheap, but it was missing a few parts that he’s been slowly replacing.
The robot arm came without a controller or software, but also without any schematics of any kind, so the first step was reverse engineering the wiring diagram to get an idea of what was going on inside the arm. From there some drivers were built for the servos, but the key to all of it is the homemade controller. The inverse kinematics math was done in Python and runs on an industrial PC. Once it was finally all put together [caltadaniel] had a functioning robotic arm for any task he could think of.
Interestingly enough, while he shows the robot brushing his teeth for him, he also set it up to flip the switch of a useless machine that exists only to turn itself off. There’s something surreal about a massive industrial-sized robotic arm being used to turn on a $20 device which will switch itself back off instantly, but the absurdity is worth a watch.
Continue reading “Industrial Robot Given New Life And Controller”