ARM, originally Acorn RISC Machine, later Advanced RISC Machine, is a family of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architectures for computer processors, configured for various environments. British company ARM Holdings develops the architecture and licenses it to other companies, who design their own products that implement one of those architectures—including systems-on-chips (SoC) and systems-on-modules (SoM) that incorporate memory, interfaces, radios, etc. It also designs cores that implement this instruction set and licenses these designs to a number of companies that incorporate those core designs into their own products.
Processors that have a RISC architecture typically require fewer transistors than those with a complex instruction set computing (CISC) architecture (such as the x86 processors found in most personal computers), which improves cost, power consumption, and heat dissipation. These characteristics are desirable for light, portable, battery-powered devices—including smartphones, laptops and tablet computers, and other embedded systems. For supercomputers, which consume large amounts of electricity, ARM could also be a power-efficient solution.
The British computer manufacturer Acorn Computers first developed the Acorn RISC Machine architecture (ARM) in the 1980s to use in its personal computers. Its first ARM-based products were coprocessor modules for the BBC Micro series of computers. After the successful BBC Micro computer, Acorn Computers considered how to move on from the relatively simple MOS Technology 6502 processor to address business markets like the one that was soon dominated by the IBM PC, launched in 1981. The Acorn Business Computer (ABC) plan required that a number of second processorsbe made to work with the BBC Micro platform, but processors such as the Motorola 68000 and National Semiconductor 32016 were considered unsuitable, and the 6502 was not powerful enough for a graphics-based user interface.
After testing all available processors and finding them lacking, Acorn decided it needed a new architecture. Inspired by papers from the Berkeley RISCproject, Acorn considered designing its own processor. A visit to the Western Design Center in Phoenix, where the 6502 was being updated by what was effectively a single-person company, showed Acorn engineers Steve Furber and Sophie Wilson they did not need massive resources and state-of-the-art research and development facilities.
Wilson developed the instruction set, writing a simulation of the processor in BBC BASIC that ran on a BBC Micro with a 6502 second processor. This convinced Acorn engineers they were on the right track. Wilson approached Acorn’s CEO, Hermann Hauser, and requested more resources. Hauser gave his approval and assembled a small team to implement Wilson’s model in hardware.
Acorn RISC Machine: ARM2
The official Acorn RISC Machine project started in October 1983. They chose VLSI Technology as the silicon partner, as they were a source of ROMs and custom chips for Acorn. Wilson and Furber led the design. They implemented it with a similar efficiency ethos as the 6502. A key design goal was achieving low-latency input/output (interrupt) handling like the 6502. The 6502’s memory access architecture had let developers produce fast machines without costly direct memory access (DMA) hardware.
The first samples of ARM silicon worked properly when first received and tested on 26 April 1985.
The first ARM application was as a second processor for the BBC Micro, where it helped in developing simulation software to finish development of the support chips (VIDC, IOC, MEMC), and sped up the CAD software used in ARM2 development. Wilson subsequently rewrote BBC BASIC in ARM assembly language. The in-depth knowledge gained from designing the instruction set enabled the code to be very dense, making ARM BBC BASIC an extremely good test for any ARM emulator. The original aim of a principally ARM-based computer was achieved in 1987 with the release of the Acorn Archimedes. In 1992, Acorn once more won the Queen’s Award for Technology for the ARM.
The ARM2 featured a 32-bit data bus, 26-bit address space and 27 32-bit registers. Eight bits from the program counter register were available for other purposes; the top six bits (available because of the 26-bit address space) served as status flags, and the bottom two bits (available because the program counter was always word-aligned) were used for setting modes. The address bus was extended to 32 bits in the ARM6, but program code still had to lie within the first 64 MB of memory in 26-bit compatibility mode, due to the reserved bits for the status flags. The ARM2 had a transistor count of just 30,000, compared to Motorola’s six-year-older 68000 model with around 40,000. Much of this simplicity came from the lack of microcode (which represents about one-quarter to one-third of the 68000) and from (like most CPUs of the day) not including any cache. This simplicity enabled low power consumption, yet better performance than the Intel 80286. A successor, ARM3, was produced with a 4 KB cache, which further improved performance.
In the late 1980s Apple Computer and VLSI Technology started working with Acorn on newer versions of the ARM core. In 1990, Acorn spun off the design team into a new company named Advanced RISC Machines Ltd., which became ARM Ltd when its parent company, ARM Holdings plc, floated on the London Stock Exchange and NASDAQ in 1998. The new Apple-ARM work would eventually evolve into the ARM6, first released in early 1992. Apple used the ARM6-based ARM610 as the basis for their Apple Newton PDA.
In 1994, Acorn used the ARM610 as the main central processing unit (CPU) in their RiscPC computers. DEC licensed the ARMv4 architecture and produced the StrongARM. At 233 MHz, this CPU drew only one watt (newer versions draw far less). This work was later passed to Intel as part of a lawsuit settlement, and Intel took the opportunity to supplement their i960 line with the StrongARM. Intel later developed its own high performance implementation named XScale, which it has since sold to Marvell. Transistor count of the ARM core remained essentially the same throughout these changes; ARM2 had 30,000 transistors, while ARM6 grew only to 35,000.
In 2005, about 98% of all mobile phones sold used at least one ARM processor. In 2010, producers of chips based on ARM architectures reported shipments of 6.1 billion ARM-based processors, representing 95% of smartphones, 35% of digital televisions and set-top boxes and 10% of mobile computers. In 2011, the 32-bit ARM architecture was the most widely used architecture in mobile devices and the most popular 32-bit one in embedded systems. In 2013, 10 billion were produced and “ARM-based chips are found in nearly 60 percent of the world’s mobile devices”.
ARM Holdings’ primary business is selling IP cores, which licensees use to create microcontrollers (MCUs), CPUs, and systems-on-chips based on those cores. The original design manufacturer combines the ARM core with other parts to produce a complete device, typically one that can be built in existing Semiconductor fabrication plants (fabs) at low cost and still deliver substantial performance. The most successful implementation has been the ARM7TDMI with hundreds of millions sold. Atmel has been a precursor design center in the ARM7TDMI-based embedded system.
The ARM architectures used in smartphones, PDAs and other mobile devices range from ARMv5 to ARMv7-A, used in low-end and midrange devices, to ARMv8-A used in current high-end devices.
In 2009, some manufacturers introduced netbooks based on ARM architecture CPUs, in direct competition with netbooks based on Intel Atom. According to analyst firm IHS iSuppli, by 2015, ARM Integrated circuits may be in 23% of all laptops.
ARM Holdings offers a variety of licensing terms, varying in cost and deliverables. ARM Holdings provides to all licensees an integratable hardware description of the ARM core as well as complete software development toolset (compiler, debugger, software development kit) and the right to sell manufactured silicon containing the ARM CPU.
SoC packages integrating ARM’s core designs include Nvidia Tegra’s first three generations, CSR plc’s Quatro family, ST-Ericsson’s Nova and NovaThor, Silicon Labs’s Precision32 MCU, Texas Instruments’s OMAP products, Samsung’s Hummingbird and Exynos products, Apple’s A4, A5, and A5X, and Freescale’s i.MX.
Fabless licensees, who wish to integrate an ARM core into their own chip design, are usually only interested in acquiring a ready-to-manufacture verified semiconductor intellectual property core. For these customers, ARM Holdings delivers a gate netlist description of the chosen ARM core, along with an abstracted simulation model and test programs to aid design integration and verification. More ambitious customers, including integrated device manufacturers (IDM) and foundry operators, choose to acquire the processor IP in synthesizable RTL (Verilog) form. With the synthesizable RTL, the customer has the ability to perform architectural level optimisations and extensions. This allows the designer to achieve exotic design goals not otherwise possible with an unmodified netlist (high clock speed, very low power consumption, instruction set extensions, etc.). While ARM Holdings does not grant the licensee the right to resell the ARM architecture itself, licensees may freely sell manufactured product such as chip devices, evaluation boards and complete systems. Merchant foundries can be a special case; not only are they allowed to sell finished silicon containing ARM cores, they generally hold the right to re-manufacture ARM cores for other customers.
ARM Holdings prices its IP based on perceived value. Lower performing ARM cores typically have lower licence costs than higher performing cores. In implementation terms, a synthesizable core costs more than a hard macro (blackbox) core. Complicating price matters, a merchant foundry that holds an ARM licence, such as Samsung or Fujitsu, can offer fab customers reduced licensing costs. In exchange for acquiring the ARM core through the foundry’s in-house design services, the customer can reduce or eliminate payment of ARM’s upfront licence fee.
Compared to dedicated semiconductor foundries (such as TSMC and UMC) without in-house design services, Fujitsu/Samsung charge two- to three-times more per manufactured wafer. For low to mid volume applications, a design service foundry offers lower overall pricing (through subsidisation of the licence fee). For high volume mass-produced parts, the long term cost reduction achievable through lower wafer pricing reduces the impact of ARM’s NRE (Non-Recurring Engineering) costs, making the dedicated foundry a better choice.
Companies that have designed chips with ARM cores include Amazon.com‘s Annapurna Labs subsidiary, Analog Devices, Apple, AppliedMicro (now: MACOM Technology Solutions), Atmel, Broadcom, Cypress Semiconductor, Freescale Semiconductor (now NXP Semiconductors), Nvidia, NXP, Qualcomm, Renesas, Samsung Electronics, ST Microelectronics and Texas Instruments.
Companies can also obtain an ARM architectural licence for designing their own CPU cores using the ARM instruction sets. These cores must comply fully with the ARM architecture. Companies that have designed cores that implement an ARM architecture include Apple, AppliedMicro, Broadcom, Cavium (now: Marvell), Nvidia, Qualcomm, and Samsung Electronics.
- Although most datapaths and CPU registers in the early ARM processors were 32-bit, addressable memory was limited to 26 bits; with upper bits, then, used for status flags in the program counter register.
- ARMv3 included a compatibility mode to support the 26-bit addresses of earlier versions of the architecture. This compatibility mode optional in ARMv4, and removed entirely in ARMv5.
ARM Holdings provides a list of vendors who implement ARM cores in their design (application specific standard products (ASSP), microprocessor and microcontrollers).
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