Subject: Processors | September 30, 2014 - 10:02 PM | Josh Walrath
Tagged: arm, cortex, Cortex-A, cortex-m, 90 nm, 40 nm, 28 nm, 32 bit
Last week ARM announced the latest member of their Cortex-M series of embedded parts. The new Cortex-M7 design is a 32 bit processor designed to have good performance while achieving excellent power consumption. The M7 is a fully superscalar design with 6 pipeline stages. This product should not be confused with the Cortex-A series of products, as the M series is aimed directly at embedded markets.
This product is not necessarily meant for multi-media rich applications, so it will not find its way into a modern smart phone. Products that it is leveraged at would be products like the latest generation of smart watches. Industrial control applications, automotive computing, low power and low heat applications, and countless IoT (Internet of Things) products can utilize this architecture.
The designs are being offered on a variety of process nodes from 90 nm down to 28 nm. These choices are made by the licensee depending on the specifics of their application. In the most energy efficient state, ARM claims that these products can see multiple years of running non-stop on a small lithium battery.
This obviously is not the most interesting ARM based product that we have seen lately, but it addresses a very important market. What is perhaps most interesting about this release not only is the pretty dramatic increase in per clock performance from the previous generation of part, but also how robust the support is in terms of design tools, software ecosystem, and 3rd party support.
Cortex-M7 can also be utilized in areas where a more complex DSP has traditionally been used. In comparison to some common DSPs, the Cortex-M7 is competitive in terms of specialized workload performance. It also has the advantage of being much more flexible than a DSP in a general computing environment.
ARM just keeps on moving along with products that address many different computing markets. ARM’s high end Cortex-A series of parts powers the majority of smart phones and tablets while the Cortex-M series have sold in the billions addressing the embedded market. The Cortex-M7 is the latest member of that family and will find more than its fair share of products to be integrated into.
Past Nano History
One could argue that VIA jumped on the low power bandwagon before it was really cool. Way back in the late 90s VIA snatched up processor firms Cyrix and Centaur, and started to merge those design teams to create low powered x86 CPUs. Over the next several years VIA was still flying high on the chipset side, but due to circumstances started to retreat from that business. On the Intel side it was primarily due to the legal issues that stemmed from the front side bus license that VIA had, and how it apparently did not apply to the Pentium 4. On the AMD side it was more about the increased competition from NVIDIA and ATI/AMD, plus the lack of revenue from that smaller CPU market. Other areas have kept VIA afloat through the years, such as audio codecs, very popular Firewire controllers, and the latest USB 3.0 components that are starting to show up.
Considering all of the above, VIA thought its best way to survive was to get into the CPU business and explore a niche in the x86 market that had been widely ignored except for a handful of products from guys like Nat Semi (who had originally bought up Cyrix). In the late 90s and early 00s there just was not much of a call for low power x86 products, and furthermore the industry was still at a point where even mundane productivity software would max out the top end x86 processors at the time. This was a time where 1GHz was still not common, and all processors were single core. Fast forward to 2011 and we have four and six core processors running in excess of 3 GHz. We have also seen a dramatic shift in the x86 realm to specialized, lower power processors.
Read on for more details!