AMD betting on cloud-mobility convergence

Monday - 3/31/2014, 3:19am EDT

Commentary By Tom Temin
Federal News Radio

Cloud computing and mobile computing are somehow mutually reinforcing trends. But how exactly? One can exist without the other.

I heard a really good answer from Rory Read, the chief executive officer of AMD. Advanced Micro Devices, the perennial No. 2 to Intel in the PC processor market, is in the midst of a bet-the-company strategy change. The PC in the traditional form of a box or a notebook, while not disappearing, has lessened in importance as a platform for innovation. So much energy is going into mobile devices — smart phones, phablets, tablets and "ultra" this, that and the other with touch screens and solid state drives.

Tom Temin

These hardware form factors have been accompanied by a change in the way applications are programmed and architected. Apps exist independently of the data stores they draw from. That means they can synthesize output from lots of data sources from the rows and columns in relational databases to the geographic data that describes the whole world. Increasingly, Read and others believe that data will be stored in public clouds. Much of it already is when you consider how many organizations offer up their information to be available to apps.

Including, of course, federal agencies. At Federal News Radio we've reported for a year about the galaxy of policies and initiatives the Obama administration has launched around open data, open government and data as a valuable commodity. Lord knows few organizations churn out as much data as the U.S. federal government.

"The cloud changes everything," Read said. "It dis-intermediates the device from the data." The mobile device also re-integrates unlike data or data from multiple sources via the apps and displays it on a high-resolution screen. So you've potentially got a high degree of both numerical and graphics processing required at once — rows and columns type computing and visually intensive. How that happens inside a mobile device is largely a function of the microprocessor architecture. It's fundamentally different from the x86 architecture found in most PCs and servers for the past umpty ump years. Read freely acknowledges that Intel missed the mobility movement with its chips. And because AMD was so focused on going toe-to-toe with Intel, it too missed mobility.

An irony is that the ARM chip architecture so widely used on the hundreds of millions of mobile devices sold each year actually predates that of the first Intel 8086 of the original 1982 IBM PC.

For some time, analysts have been predicting that the mobile ARM architecture is headed upstream to the cloud data center itself. Read said AMD is actively working to make that happen. He reiterated AMD's "APU," or accelerated processing unit, approach in which a compute-optimized and graphics-optimized process is fabricated on a single chip incorporating up to 32 cores. It's coupled with a set of application programming interfaces called HSA, or heterogeneous system architecture. The HSA lets programmers create applications that use either or both processing styles for today's apps that call on disparate data types. AMD executes this now in the x86 architecture; it's the chip, Read pointed out, in the latest X-Box One and PS-4 game stations. Gaming, he says, very much represents where computing is headed — online, a mixture of locally cached and cloud data and lots of computing and graphics.

Read said AMD is sampling to OEMs an ARM architecture version of the APU-HSA combo. He said he's confident it will help enable a new generation of cloud computing servers that reduce the physical footprint of a unit of cloud power by two-thirds, and power consumption by three-quarters. The HP Moonshot server exemplifies this coming approach, Read said. The cloud of the future will handle larger workloads and a higher density of virtual machines per server, yet with less space and power consumption.

"The huge data center firms, the Rackspaces, Amazons, Googles, they're all reaching big space, power and performance problems," Read said. The new style of cloud-tuned servers "link low power server chips together to transform the data center." Moreover, Read said, the integration of numbers and graphics processing, low power, dis-intermediation between application and data sources, and data streaming from the cloud will become the norm in not just gaming but also in military and civilian systems.


Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-10 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.