Arm reportedly developing ‘advanced’ test chip for customers

Arm reportedly developing ‘advanced’ test chip for customers

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Arm Ltd. is developing a test chip designed to demonstrate the capabilities of its technology to customers, according to a new report.

The Financial Times on Sunday cited sources as saying that the project is Arm’s “most advanced” chipmaking initiative to date. The team spearheading the effort is reportedly led by former Qualcomm Inc. and NXP Semiconductors N.V. executive Kevork Kechichian. At Qualcomm, Kechichian oversaw the development of the company’s flagship Snapdragon mobile chips. 

Modern processors comprise multiple components. A central processing unit, for example, includes several processing cores as well as interconnects that link those cores together. Many chips also include additional modules, such as cybersecurity-optimized circuits that perform data encryption and decryption.

Arm is a leading supplier of semiconductor designs. Its primary focus is not developing complete chip designs, but rather blueprints for individual chip components such as CPU cores and interconnects. Arm’s customers mix and match those components to build custom semiconductor products.

The test chip being developed by Arm is reportedly not a semiconductor building block such as a CPU core, but rather a fully featured processor. Arm has developed such processors in the past to support customers’ product development efforts. However, the new chip is described as being different from earlier products in several ways.

Arm’s existing test processors are geared mainly towards developers. Developers use the processors to familiarize themselves with the company’s technology, as well as prototype new software. In contrast, the test chip Arm is now developing is reportedly designed mainly for semiconductor makers.

The company’s reported goal is to showcase the capabilities of its processor designs to customers. However, some in the semiconductor industry are said to be concerned that the test chip might eventually be offered as a commercial product. In theory, such a product could compete with the processors sold by Arm’s customers. 

Sources close to the company told the Financial Times that it doesn’t intend to sell the test chip. Moreover, they added, it won’t license the underlying design to other companies. 

The test chip is reportedly being developed by a relatively large “solutions engineering” team within Arm. It’s believed that the team is also responsible for a number of other tasks. In particular, it has reportedly been charged with finding ways to improve the performance and security of Arm’s chip designs, as well as make them more accessible for developers. 

The company reportedly envisions its test chip finding use in laptops, handsets and other types of devices. Laptops and handsets’ processing requirements differ significantly. As a result, chipmakers usually develop separate processors for each device type they target.

That Arm’s test chip is intended to power several different types of devices suggests it may be offered in multiple editions. That’s not an unfamiliar practice in the semiconductor industry. Qualcomm, for example, offers multiple versions of its Snapdragon mobile chip that vary in performance and power efficiency.

Image: Arm

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