Sky’s the limit in terms of new killer applications, say Arm chiefs
A birth in a barn is a topical theme at this time of year and, to extend the analogy, more than a few wise men have borne gifts to and from Arm after spotting this glittering star in the East.
With a $40 billion sale to US giant NVIDIA in the offing in 2021, Arm stands on the threshold of yet another new era just five years after Japanese power player SoftBank shelled out $32bn for the globally admired superchip architect.
If Arm is entering a period of uncertainty as it celebrates its 30th anniversary this is certainly not permeating the mindset of senior executives.
CEO Simon Segars could hardly be more upbeat. He told Business Weekly: “Thirty years ago, Arm began with a vision of deploying energy-efficient processor designs everywhere that computing might happen.
“It’s incredible how far we’ve come, with a cumulative 180 billion Arm-based chips shipped by a global ecosystem spanning all markets. By way of context, 10 years ago that chip shipment figure stood at just 24 billion units – roughly what we expect our partners to ship this year alone.
“As I look forward, I am even more excited by the decade to come as we continue our mission to put compute power into the hands of innovators and spark the world’s technology potential.”
Graham Budd, president and chief operating officer at Arm revealed to Business Weekly that he will be retiring at the end of March. He plans to spend some time with his family. He confides: “My intention is to retire from the industry; after a year or so we shall see.”
But he is full of confidence for the future of Arm and swells with pride as he charts the company’s relentless drive to transform the digital world.
Graham became President and COO in 2018, having been Arm’s chief operating officer 10 years earlier. Prior to this he was EVP and general manager of the Processor Division from 2005.
Graham joined Arm in 1992 as a VLSI design engineer and led the development of several of Arm’s early system-on-chip designs. They were in the barn, of course, at that time but bursting with ambition. He has held a number of engineering, marketing and operations leadership roles, been a member of the Arm executive committee since 2005 and a board member since 2017.
He told me: “I remember thinking when I was being interviewed for my first role at Arm how exciting the vision was to become architect of the digital world – to be developing a completely new standard.”
Budd reels off the key milestones in terms of partnerships and technology advances. For example, Arm broadened its collaboration with Sun Microsystems in the summer of 2001 with a view to ensuring that many more future Arm microprocessor cores being optimised to run Java applications. Its collaborations with Nokia are legion.
It was an early powerhouse in cellular markets. Now Arm has announced the next generation of smartphone processors, set to deliver up to 20 per cent or greater performance than the prior generation.
The new cores – the Cortex-A78, the Mali-G78, and the Ethos-N78 – will debut in smartphones shipping in 2021.
System on a chip architecture was another first for Arm in the early days, Budd recalls, and the company pioneered some of the earliest portable devices on discreet chips and began to integrate key technology into silicon on chips (SICS).
Budd was involved in development of the early technology that would prove to be the forerunner of the chips that would become essential at the heart of smartphones in the 2000’s.
“These were the trailblazers; the technology that drove mobile devices as they began to become ubiquitous,” he says.
Arm has never been a lone wolf. It prefers to hunt in packs of like-minded corporate creatures with sharp teeth and good instincts. He says: “Something that has remained really important is our partnership business model; our collaborative approach. Arm’s business is all about building up long term partnerships.
“The Arm ecosystem is an incredibly powerful model and I would argue that this has remained unchanged since the start of the company. It has helped us remain really resilient.”
As Arm entered the 2000s, Budd says that one of the big trends it started to see was global companies starting to use Arm in many more applications than ever before, right down to tiny microcontrollers.
Budd spent three years in the mid-2000s running the company’s microprocessing division and is proud that Arm’s prowess here is acknowledged as the world’s leading processor IP for the widest range of devices.
Arm is the undisputed top technology provider of processor IP, offering the widest range of cores to address the performance, power, and cost requirements of every device imaginable – from IoT sensors to supercomputers, and from smartphones and laptops to autonomous vehicles.
Spanning such a huge range of requirements through this capability – from High Performance Computing to tiny sensors and microcontrollers – is a great achievement, Budd believes. Arm’s Cortex suite is globally renowned for its flexibility and reliability.
Budd is also proud of the fact that Arm was quick to recognise the importance of security to users of its technology.
Arm-based chips are already in more than 180 billion devices and as the Internet of Things (IoT) rapidly expands, it expects that number to grow to a global network of one trillion connected devices.
Budd says: “The issue of security underpins so many of our current technologies. Security cannot be an afterthought. It must considered at inception and each threat addressed with the appropriate countermeasure. Arm has been helping the ecosystem secure devices from chip to cloud for many years and remains committed to an end-to-end approach to security.”
The march of augmented reality and virtual reality and their potential impact for the good in many areas, not least healthcare, has not only been monitored by Arm but acted upon.
Arm’s take is that the ongoing virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed-reality revolution demonstrates the power and potential of immersion in specialty systems and use cases.
Challenges such as battery life, computer vision, and pixel density beyond 4K must be addressed for successful AR and VR experiences, the company says. And all this computation must also be performed within a fixed 2-watt to 3-watt thermal budget, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible with ever-smaller devices.
Budd observes: “Arm CPU and GPU technology delivers a number of benefits, including improved performance and increased power efficiency. As features and capabilities become more complex, increased compute performance will be a necessary requirement; however, the various compute-intensive tasks need to be carried out in a power-efficient manner.
“As the features on wearable AR and VR devices continue to evolve, the highly-integrated compute solutions based on Arm IP delivered by our innovative partners will continue to increase this much-needed efficiency.”
The massive compute power at the heart of all of Arm’s technology suite is very much a herald for the future in areas key to enabling companies across the planet to maximise their potential.
Think High Performance Computing, Supercomputers, the server and data centre markets and it is hard to imagine harnessing all that potential without an input from Arm, Budd contends.
He says Arm refuses to stand still and continues to scan the horizons of future technology needs to help inform its ongoing agenda. A classic example, as we reported mid-November, is the exotically named Project Triffid.
Budd believes that increasingly lower power devices will deliver ever higher power results and that Project Triffid is positioned to prove the point. The programme is set to trigger billions of batteryless Arm devices.
This is not an isolated spurt of brilliance. Arm endeavours to answer the needs of technology innovators before the question is even posed.
Budd says this has been the case “since the first days in the barn. Our initial vision and what has been achieved is truly amazing – but it is all as a result of our business model. About long-term relationships and trust.
“Our customers are fully confident that they will get the technology solution they need to grow their businesses and credibility regardless of whether the solution is in an autonomous vehicle, a smartphone, a server in a data centre or a key device utilised for healthcare.”
Customers can ride that wave of confidence years down the road because Arm has worked with them to understand the way their own business and the markets they serve are developing for years into the future. “They know that by working in collaboration with us they will get a product that will drive the next generation of development,” Budd says.
Arm is surfing high on the 5th wave of computing and leading advances in Artificial Intelligence, the Internet of Things and 5G connectivity. These three things together will contribute to opening up a whole new world of data computing and Budd says Arm has both hands on the control system to drive the projected advances.
“These technologies will drive new applications and business models,” says Budd. “And I don’t think we are limited by any obstacles to our vision. Again it is our own collaborative model that enables customers to focus on nextgen innovation.
“Companies are not having to reinvent the wheel. We are helping to generate faster innovation and the sky is the limit in terms of developing killer applications.”
1990: Arm begins as a small group of 12 chip engineers spun out of Acorn technologies to form a joint venture between Acorn, Apple and chip design tools maker VLSI Technology. The first office is in a converted 18th century barn. The first CEO is Robin Saxby – now Sir Robin.
1991: Future Arm CEO Simon Segars joins Arm as employee No. 16.
1993: Beginning of Arm’s ‘Nokia moment’ as the Arm6 processor catches the attention of Nokia which is in the early stages of planning a future GSM phone.
1998: Arm (then Arm Holdings Plc) floats on the London Stock Exchange (LSE) and NASDAQ priced at £5.75 per share and with a market cap of £264 million.
1999: Arm enters the FTSE 100 – a share index of the top 100 LSE companies based on market cap.
2001: Warren East, now CEO of Rolls-Royce Holdings, is named CEO.
2002: The one-billionth Arm-based chip is shipped .
2004: Arm acquires Artisan Components, a provider of physical IP components for the design of system-on-a-chip integrated circuits, for $913m.
2008: The 10 billionth Arm-based chip is shipped.
2013: Simon Segars is announced as Arm CEO, replacing Warren East.
2016: Arm is acquired by SoftBank for $32bn.
2020: Arm silicon partners ship the 180 billionth Arm-based chip in the past 30 years; more than 100bn Arm-based chips in the past five years alone. NVIDIA announces its intention to purchase Arm from SoftBank for $40bn.