Sun Inks Deal with ARM for Chip Intellectual Property
Published: May 17, 2007
by Timothy Prickett Morgan
Sun Microsystems might have open sourced the design of its multicore "Niagara" Sparc T1 processor under the OpenSparc project, but that doesn't mean that its newly established and free-standing Microelectronics group doesn't want to make money selling intellectual property. Sun most certainly does want to do that, and this week it inked a deal with British embedded chip maker ARM, the first of what the company hopes will be many such deals.
ARM chips are 32-bit RISC processors that were originally created by a company called Acorn Computers, which has a long history in embedded processing. An Advanced RISC Machine chip was used in the ill-fated granddaddy of modern mobile computing devices, the Apple Computer Newton; the former Digital equipment licensed the ARM intellectual property to create a variant of the chip called StrongARM, and Intel used to have an ARM variant for embedded devices called XScale, until it sold the business to chip maker Marvell in June 2006. Suffice it to say, ARM chips are used in all kinds of embedded devices where power consumption is a big issue, such as in cell phones and other mobile gear as well as in myriad other embedded devices--even sometimes in a RAID disk controllers, but as the brains inside of disk drives or routers.
ARM, the company, does not make chips, but rather licenses the cores and related tools that allow others to design and possibly manufacture their own variants of the ARM architecture. Many of the companies that do supply ARM chips go to third parties to actually fabricate their processors--much as Sun itself goes to Texas Instruments to deliver its Sparc processors for its workstations and servers.
The one thing that ARM needs, therefore, is a big bag of tricks to keep the ARM architecture relevant. Manufacturers of embedded and mobile devices are facing the same conflicting issues as server makers--companies want more performance, but they want chips and the systems they build using them to consume less power. To that end, according to Marc Tremblay, Sun's chief technology officer, ARM is buying a license to a package of several hundred patents relating to Sun's chips and related technologies that spans back to 1995. While Tremblay is not specific about exactly what ARM has acquired, he says that it includes patents relating to the first-generation UltraSparc-I chips, as well as the picoJava and MAJC Java processors that Sun developed but did not successfully commercialize. ARM has also taken some IP related to the future 16-core "Rock" Sparc RK processors as well as to the Niagara chips, with particular emphasis on multicore and multithreading architectures. Tremblay says that ARM has also picked up some patents relating to graphics, I/O, memory management, and power management as well.
"ARM has been a partner of Sun's for many years," said Tremblay, referring to the chip multithreading architecture that is at the heart of the Niagara and Rock processors. "This broadens the ecosystem for CMT, and that is a critical objective for Sun."
Sun and ARM did not disclose the value of the deal, but Tremblay said that it was "not thousands of dollars, and it was not billions, either."
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