It was the best-known secret of the year: ARM was prepping its first 64-bit CPU architecture to bash head-on with Intel in the low-power server market. ARM's official announcement finally came in October, and AppliedMicro revealed bold plans for the first 64-bit processor based on the new architecture.
With Microsoft readying its first ARM-compatible version of desktop/server Windows, PCs may flirt with ARM, too, although notebooks are more likely candidates than desktops. It's the first serious challenge from a non-x86 architecture that Intel has faced in 20 years.
These days, the desperate quest for power efficiency is driving the industry in new directions. Not all those roads lead to Intel. ARM's existing 32-bit CPU architecture rules the cell phone market and is popular in numerous other devices, such as Apple's iPad. Although ARM-based processors can't yet match the performance of Intel's best chips, they are powerful enough for many purposes and are more power efficient.
System vendors want to try building large servers using boatloads of low-power ARM chips, but the critical missing piece was a 64-bit ARM architecture. Every other server-processor architecture (x86, Itanium, POWER, SPARC) has been 64-bit for years.
Unlike Intel, however, ARM doesn't actually make microprocessors, it licenses its architecture and CPU cores to other companies, which design the chips and outsource manufacturing to independent foundries. Hence the importance of AppliedMicro's announcement: a future 32-core server processor called X-Gene. Someone has to go first.
Intel retains awesome advantages in CPU performance, fabrication technology, engineering resources, and market position. Frankly, I give ARM only a 50/50 chance of succeeding outside its traditional mobile scope. But the battle will be good drama, and the fresh competition will push Intel to design lower-power x86 processors, so almost any outcome is a win for the rest of us.