Friday, May 28, 2021

NVidia+ARM: Everyone's got it wrong

There is a huge computer processor hardware war going on right now.  I'm going to try to be as accurate as I can here...

Since most software is written for Microsoft Windows, people were forced to use x86 chips, which are mostly made by Intel, except for AMD which has a license going back to the 1980s to make x86 clone chips.  

Intel has been falling behind AMD.  They were slow to release chips with smaller than 14-nanometer circuits, with the latest offering using 10 nanometers.  However, AMD has already released 7-nanometer chips with plans to release 5 and 6 nanometer chips soon.

There is a 30+ year war over design philosophy.  The x86 chips have huge instruction sets, called Complex Instruction Set Computers (CISC), making them more versatile.  However, in the late 1980s, ARM starting developing Reduced Instruction Set Computer (RISC) processors that could run more efficiently by limiting the instruction sets to what was most important.    RISC chips typically run faster while using less power, making them ideal for mobile devices. 

ARM RISC chips recently have caught up and even surpassed most x86 chips.  Apple developed their own versions of ARM chips for their mobile devices that were starting to rival desktop processors.  Then Apple stunned everyone by releasing their ARM-based 5-nanometer M1 processor for their new laptops and lower-end computers.  The M1 chip is surprisingly powerful rivaling some of the best x86 chips while using far less energy.  The M1 processor can also run many Apple x86 programs using emulation while still maintaining strong performance.

Reportedly Apple has plans to release much more powerful versions of the M1 chip for their high-end computers.

The x86 oligopoly is starting to fade.  Microsoft has released versions of Windows that can run on ARM processors, although these are not compatible with x86 programs.  There have been ideas around for a long time that have started to emerge again, such as Just In Time Compilation, and Virtual Machines such as Java that will allow software to be developed that can run on different kinds of hardware.  In addition, many companies are starting to make software for both x86 and ARM.

With Nvidia acquiring ARM for 40 billion dollars, they are looking to become the new dominant chip manufacturer.

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