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Infrastructure // PC & Servers

Nvidia To Build ARM-Based Microprocessor

With Microsoft taking Windows to ARM, Nvidia could eventually gain ground against Intel and AMD in general-purpose computing.

Nvidia's plans to build an ARM-based microprocessor reflects changes in the computer industry that could threaten the dominance of Intel and Advanced Micro Devices in the general purpose computing market.

Nvidia announced Wednesday the existence of Project Denver, codename for its scheme to build an ARM-based central processor for personal computers, servers, workstations, and supercomputers. Nvidia President and Chief Executive Jen-Hsun Huang made the announcement at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nev.

Nvidia's ambitions were made possible by Microsoft. On the same day as the Nvidia announcement, the software maker said at CES that the next version of Windows would run on ARM-based microarchitectures, as well as x86 processors from Intel and AMD. Microsoft has not said when it would release the new operating system, which industry observers say is unlikely before 2012.

Microsoft is adding ARM to Windows because the technology developed and licensed by U.K.-based ARM Holdings is in nearly all smartphones and tablets. Microsoft is apparently unwilling to bet that Intel will topple ARM as the chipmaker tailors its x86 architecture for the mobile market.

Nvidia's ambitions in general purpose computing are seen by analysts as a logical extension of its current work in high-performance computing. The company has developed graphics processors that are used in supercomputers for scientific applications requiring huge amounts of number crunching. The world's fastest computer, China's Tianhe-1A, uses both Nvidia GPUs and Intel CPUs.

Nvidia also has experience in building ARM-based CPUs, which the company uses along with its graphics processors in its Tegra system-on-a-chip for smartphones and tablets. "Tegra is the little brother of Denver," Jon Peddie, analyst for Jon Peddie Research, told InformationWeek Thursday.

Scaling Nvidia's low-power CPU to drive servers and desktops, and then convincing computer makers to ship products with the hardware is going to take time, assuming Nvidia is successful. "It's going to take years for that to unfold," Shane Rau, analyst for IDC, says.

Nvidia's planned invasion of Intel's territory comes as the chipmaker is trying to grab a bigger share of the graphics market, putting pressure on Nvidia to expand its business. Intel officially launched at CES this week a chip design codenamed Sandy Bridge that combines a CPU with a GPU on the same piece of silicon. AMD announced at CES a similar architecture that it calls "accelerated processing units." Manufacturers have already announced plans to ship PCs using the new processors this year.


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