Chip Designer Arm Aims for Dominance in 5G Networks

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Chip designer Arm wants to ensure that its hardware and software resources are the primary engine driving innovation in the young but fast-growing 5G industry.

The company at its Arm DevSummit 2021 this week introduced its 5G Solutions Lab that officials said will leverage its technologies and those of its vast network of partners to accelerate the creation of products and the development of network infrastructure for 5G and OpenRAN efforts.

The global 5G market is expected to expand rapidly in the coming years as enterprises, cloud service providers, and telecommunications firms take advantage of the significant advances in latency, performance, and capacity that the next-generation cellular technology promises over 4G LTE.

Chris Bergey, senior vice president and general manager of Arm’s infrastructure line of business, noted that 5G networks are now live in more than 60 markets worldwide and that the number of 5G connections are expected to hit 692 million by the end of 2021.

“The rapid pace of deployment underscores how critical it is that we achieve faster development of network and edge infrastructure solutions to unleash the benefits of 5G to everyone, including those in emerging economies with limited or no access to connectivity,” Bergey wrote in a blog post. “To do this, operators are seeking greater choice and flexibility in future systems, and Arm is positioned to help deliver that through our vast and robust partner ecosystem.”

Broad Support for Arm

Arm doesn’t manufacture processors; rather it designs the architecture and then licenses those designs to a broad array of chip makers, including major players like Qualcomm, Samsung, Nvidia, Apple, and AMD. Arm is launching the 5G Solutions Lab — it will be available to developers beginning in early 2022 — in conjunction with Tech Mahindra, a major 5G systems integrator.

The initiative already has support from such companies as Google Cloud, Nvidia, Marvell, Qualcomm, NXP, DISH, Vodafone, Mavenir, and GSMA, an industry organization in the mobile network space that has more than 1,100 members and associate members.

“The Arm 5G Solutions Lab serves as a confluence where software and hardware developers, operators, and cloud service providers can come together to define KPIs [key performance indicators], blueprints and deployment guides to help bring innovations in 5G alive and ultimately, generate revenue faster,” Bergey wrote. “We envision the Lab as a catalyst for the Arm ecosystem to develop and deploy a 5G network infrastructure that leverages the inherent benefits of performance, power, and cost of the Arm architecture.”

IoT is the Future

Arm’s highly power-efficient architecture became the basis for the bulk of chips that run smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices and the company for a decade has pushed to extend its reach into new areas, including the data center and the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT) space.

“Basically, Arms sees that the IoT is going to be the thing that’s going to carry them for the next decade,” Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst with Insight 64, told Enterprise Networking Planet. “Mobile’s pretty saturated. 5G helps with mobile because it improves bandwidth and so forth, but IoT really benefits tremendously from 5G, especially because of 5G’s improvements with regard to latency. Many IoT applications are very latency-sensitive, so the more that Arm can do to make sure that Arm-based designs are taking advantage of all the features of 5G, the better.”

5G brings with it several key improvements over 4G, including speeds as much as 100 times faster than 4G. Capacity is also significantly better, which means more devices being able to run on the same network. Latency also is improved, hitting about 1 millisecond, about 30 to 50 times better than 4G. Latency is key in such areas as autonomous cars, which will need to be able to react immediately to the data they’re taking in.

Also read: Going Beyond 5G: What to Expect from a 6G Future

Accelerating OpenRAN

It also will help with Open Radio Access Networks (Open RAN), which is driving interoperability of open hardware, software, and interfaces for cellular networks. 

“Given the incredible momentum that’s been building within the OpenRAN community, we see a need to enable operators and enterprises looking to deploy private networks to gain easy access to multi-vendor platforms,” Arm’s Bergey wrote. “The Lab will provide secure access to partners and operators to validate solutions and gain confidence in new technologies across a range of critical use-cases such as small cells, macro cells, private 5G networks, cloud RAN, RAN Intelligence Controller (RIC), and core network.”

The advantages of 5G over 4G and the growth of OpenRAN will be key as the IoT evolves. At the Arm DevSummit, the company made a push to make its hardware and software the foundational technology for the IoT. The chip designer unveiled Arm Total Solutions for IoT, an initiative to accelerate application and product development times with an approach that includes access to virtualized silicon in the cloud via its Virtual Hardware Target solution, its Corstone offerings like its Cortex-A and Cortex-M designs and its growing partner ecosystem.

The goal is to reduce the design cycle for IoT products and software from five years to three years or fewer.

Arm and IoT

Insight 64’s Brookwood said Arm is well-positioned for the IoT.

“If you look at almost all of the 5G players, they all have Arm-based platforms,” he said. “Qualcomm, for example, is one of the leaders in 5G. All their processors … are based on Arm. Sometimes it’s proprietary hardware designs [and] other times it’s using Arm Cortex as the basis for designs, but everything Qualcomm does is related to the Arm architecture. You can see the same thing with other competitors, MediaTek and so forth. They all are using Arm, so it’s not like Arm has to break into this market the way Intel tried to do a decade ago. Arm is there.”

The analyst also said that Arm’s ecosystem, including more than 1,000 technology partners, gives it an advantage over rivals like Intel and developers of the open RISC-V architecture.

“The Arm ecosystem is in many ways broader than the x86 ecosystem was at its height because Arm impacts so many different market segments, whereas if you look at x86, they clearly had a big win in PCs and servers, but they never really got established in other markets, except to the extent that they were tangential to PCs and servers,” Brookwood said. “The old architectures that were used for this, things like MIPS and so forth, they’ve just faded. They haven’t done well in years, so the only real threats Arm faces are from newcomers like RISC-V, and RISC-V is running as fast as it can to build up an ecosystem, but they just don’t have even collectively among all of the RISC-V companies the resources that Arm and its current partners have.”

At the company’s developer event, Arm officials noted that its partners have shipped more than 70 billion devices based on the Cortex-M Series of chip designs, which are aimed at markets like the IoT. In a blog post this week, Arm CEO Simon Segars said Arm partners have shipped a total of 200 billion Arm-based chips over the past three decades.

Read next: SD-WAN is Important for an IoT and AI Future

Jeff Burt
Jeff Burt
Jeffrey Burt has been a journalist for more than three decades, the last 20-plus years covering technology. During more than 16 years with eWEEK, he covered everything from data center infrastructure and collaboration technology to AI, cloud, quantum computing and cybersecurity. A freelance journalist since 2017, his articles have appeared on such sites as eWEEK, The Next Platform, ITPro Today, Channel Futures, Channelnomics, SecurityNow, Data Breach Today, InternetNews and eSecurity Planet.

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