Anybody following the industry over the last decade will have heard of Arm. We best know the company for being the enabler and providing the architecture as well as CPU designs that power essentially all of today’s mobile devices. The last 7-5 years in particular we’ve seen meteoric advances in silicon performance of the mobile SoCs found in our smartphones and tablets.

However Arm's ambition goes widely beyond just mobile and embedded devices. The market for compute in general is a lot larger than that, and looking at things in a business sense, high-end devices like servers and related infrastructure carry far greater profit margins. So for a successful CPU designer like Arm who is still on the rise, it's a very lucrative market to aim for, as current leader Intel can profess.

To that end, while Arm has been wildly successful in mobile and embedded, anything requiring more performance has to date been out of reach or has come with significant drawbacks. Over the last decade we’ve heard of numerous prophecies how products based on the architecture will take the server and infrastructure market by storm “any moment now”. In the last couple of years in particular  we’ve seen various vendors attempt to bring this goal to fruition: Unfortunately, the results of the first generation of products were less than successful, and as such, even though some did better than others, the Arm server ecosystem has seen a quite a bit of hardship in its first years.

A New Focus On Performance

While Arm has been successful in mobile for quite some time, the overall performance of their designs has often left something to be desired. As a result, the company has been undertaking a new focus on performance that is spanning everything from mobile to servers. Working towards this goal, 2018 was an important year for Arm as the company had introduced its brand-new Cortex A76 microarchitecture design: Representing a clean-sheet endeavor, learning from the experience gained in previous generations, the company has put high hopes in the brand-new Austin-family of microarchitectures. In fact, Arm is so confident on its upcoming designs that the company has publicly shared its client compute CPU roadmap through 2020 and proclaiming it will take Intel head on in PC laptop space.

While we’ll have to wait a bit longer for products such as the Snapdragon 8CX to come to market, we’ve already had our hands on the first mobile devices with the Cortex A76, and very much independently verified all of Arm’s performance and efficiency claims.

And then of course, there's Neoverse, the star of today's Arm announcements. With Neoverse Arm is looking to do for servers and infrastructure what it's already doing for its mobile business, by greatly ramping up their performance and improving their competitiveness with a new generation of processor designs. We'll get into Neoverse in much deeper detail in a moment, but in context, it's one piece of a much larger effort for Arm.

All of these new microarchitectures are important to Arm because they represent an inflection point in the market: Performance is now nearing that of the high-end players such as Intel and AMD, and Arm is confident in its ability to sustain significant annual improvements of 25-30% - vastly exceeding the rate at which the incumbent vendors are able to iterate.

The Server Inflection Point: An Eventful Last Few Months Indeed

The last couple of months have been quite exciting for the Arm server ecosystem. At last year’s Hotchips we’ve covered Fujitsu’s session of their brand-new A64FX HPC (High performance compute) processor, representing not only the company shift from SPARC to ARMv8, but also delivering the first chip to implement the new SVE (Scalable Vector Extensions) addition to the Arm architecture.

Cavium’s ThunderX2 saw some very impressive performance leaps, making its new processor among the first to be able to compete with Intel and AMD – with partners such as GIGABYTE offering whole server systems solutions based on the new SoC.

Most recently, we saw Huawei unveiled their new Kunspeng 920 server chip promising to be the industry’s highest performing Arm server CPU.

The big commonality between the above mentioned three products is the fact that each represents individual vendor’s efforts at implementing a custom microarchitecture based on an ARMv8 architectural license. This in fact begs the question: what are Arm’s own plans for the server and infrastructure market? Well for those following closely, today’s coverage of the new Neoverse line-up shouldn’t come as a complete surprise as the company had first announced the branding and road-map back in October.

Introducing the Neoverse N1 & E1 platforms: Enabling the Ecosystem

Today’s announcement is all about enabling the ecosystem; we’ll be covering in more detail two new “platforms” that will be at the core of Arm’s infrastructure strategy for the next few years, the Neoverse N1 and E1 platforms:

Particularly today’s announcement of the Neoverse N1 platform sheds light onto what Arm had teased back in the initial October release, detailing what exactly “Ares” is and how the server/infrastructure counter-part to the Cortex A76 µarchitecture will be bringing major performance boosts to the Arm infrastructure ecosystem.

The Neoverse N1 CPU: No-Compromise Performance
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  • Santoval - Thursday, February 21, 2019 - link

    "Both Intel and AMD have been making chips that take the CISC instructions and run them through an instruction decoder that then hands RISC instructions to the actual cpu."
    The instruction decoder is also part of an "actual CPU". Beside the decoder the front-end also has instruction fetch, a branch predictor, predecode (potentially), μOP & L1 instruction cache, instruction queues, a TLB, allocation queues etc etc All these units are most certainly parts of the "actual CPU".
    I believe you rather meant "hands RISC-like instructions to the *back-end* of the CPU".
  • FunBunny2 - Thursday, February 21, 2019 - link

    "The speed advantages on paper between RISC and CISC are in theory a wash. "

    not to keep beating the dead horse 360, dated as it is, but with the hardware of the time (and IBM was the top of the heap, then) the 360/30 ran the instruction set in micro-code. allegedly the first computer to even have microcode. ran like drek compared to the all-hardware versions of the machine. the '30 real cpu was long reputed to be some DEC machine.

    "cpu design quite a bit without being so closely tied to backwards compatibility."

    lots of folks say that, but makes no sense to me. compilers target the instruction set, which only changes when Intel publishes 'extensions'. whether those instructions are executed in pure ISA hardware, or a rat running in a spinning wheel (RISC), makes no difference to the compiler writer.

    the profiling explanation for microcode over pure ISA hardware makes the most sense.
  • Wilco1 - Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - link

    The only misinformation is from you. RTL simulation is widely used in the industry and is quite accurate.

    Studies have shown CISC instructions don't do more than RISC instructions - partly because compilers avoid CISC instructions, partly because CISC instructions are slow. That's why RISC works. But I wouldn't expect you to understand this.
  • FunBunny2 - Thursday, February 21, 2019 - link

    "Studies have shown CISC instructions don't do more than RISC instructions "

    at least in the z world (and predecessors), there were/are some (I don't remember the count) of 'COBOL assist' instructions which were/are quite complex and were introduced to reduce the amount of times the COBOL coders had to 'drop down to assembler'. whether that's still true, I can't say.
  • DigitalVideoProcessor - Thursday, February 21, 2019 - link

    CISC vs. RISC is a debate about instruction decode philosophy and it has almost zero bearing on the performance of a system. CISC machines reduce everything to RISC like operations. Saying one does more than another in a given clock is misinformation.
  • melgross - Thursday, February 21, 2019 - link

    Those wars are long over. No modern chip is either pure CISC or RISC. Those are long gone.
  • Calin - Thursday, February 21, 2019 - link

    SPECint, SPECfp, ... are "work done tasks" - what your're referring to was "MIPS" (or millions of instructions per second). This performance metric has lost its charm since internally x86 processors no longer use x86 instructions but large bundles of microoperations that are done in parallel and can be interleaved (so two instructions that follow each other are broken into micro operations which are reordered, and might be finalized in a different order).
  • Kevin G - Thursday, February 21, 2019 - link

    The thing is that real distinction of CISC vs. RISC is lost in their similar implementations: pipelined OoO parallel execution engines. While CISC encoding may* permit more operations to be contained within a single instruction but at the cost of having to decode that instruction into an optimal arrangement given the hardware. The price paid is in power consumption and complexity which may impact factors like maximum clock speed. In the era of many core and power limitations, these attributes are the foundation for RISC to have an edge over legacy CISC designs. Not to say that RISC architectures can't leverage instruction decoding either: expanding out the fields for registers to account for the larger rename register space is a simple procedure.

    Once chips begin parallel execution, the CISC advantage of doing more per instruction really starts to fall apart. The raw amount of work being done per cycle approaches the common limit of just how much parallelism can be extracted by an inherently serial stream of instructions. Arguably CISC designs can hit this sooner in terms of raw instruction count as the instruction stream is _effectively_ compressed compared to RISC.

    *The concept of fused-multiply add instructions was an early staple of RISC architectures. Technically it goes against the purest ideal but traditional RISC designs permitted the number of operands in their instruction formatting to pull this off so they took advantage of an easy performance boost. x86 didn't gain this capability until AVX2 a few years ago.
  • peevee - Tuesday, February 26, 2019 - link

    "I think you are forgetting the very nature of RISC (Arm) vs CISC (x86) architectures"

    This distinction does not exist in practice for decades.
  • wumpus - Wednesday, February 20, 2019 - link

    It also shows a result showing Zen roughly half the performance of Intel, something that implies a fairly contrived situation. FX8350 might have had half (or worse) than Intel, but Zen is another story.

    I'm guessing that this involves AVX256 (or higher) specifically optimized for Intel (note that going to AVX512 is only a modest increase since the clockrate is brutally lowered to compensate for the increased power load. Also note that Zen2 (EPYC2 and Ryzen3000) will include native AVX256 execution paths).

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