Applied Micro Circuits HeliX: A New Twist on Embedded CPUs For Companies Like Cisco Systems

A helix is a twisted curve that occupies a 3D space, and that’s a pretty fitting name for the latest embedded CPU from AppliedMicro (Applied Micro Circuits). This is because this product will be twisted into a lot of places that might not have considered ARM technology in the past, for those who are leaving IBM’s PowerPC and Imagination Technologies Group’s MIPs Architecture. While companies like Hewlett-Packard just began using AppliedMicro (Applied Micro Circuits) CPUs in their Moonshot servers, the addition of these embedded models is welcomed by companies like Cisco Systems, who will more than likely develop products based on this new design. The new HeliX embedded CPU is based on the ARMv8-A technology which is the same extensible architecture that you’ll find in products ranging from as small as the new iPhone 6 to new HP servers.

Generally, the embedded market is more of a specialty market where unique designs are targeted to very specific applications, unlike the broader market where chip vendors target general-purpose CPUs at a wide range of business applications. But with the new 64-bit capabilities of this ARM-based embedded CPU, HeliX has an opportunity to fit into a wider range of designs that might not have considered ARM before.

While most may not be familiar with the embedded market, it’s actually quite pervasive with embedded CPUs being used in products like networking & communications, storage, industrial and imaging. This market, which should be valued at around $4.6B this year, is growing quickly and has been historically served by x86 (Intel and AMD), IBM’s PowerPC, Imagination Technologies MIPS and 32-bit ARM technology. But the market is seeing a shift to 64-bit applications, and this change is causing a consolidation. Clearly x86 and ARM will be the two winners in this race as most vendors want to consolidate down to a two-platform strategy, and x86 and ARM are the most viable contenders. Particularly in the communications space, the market is walking away from IBM’s PowerPC and Imagination Technologies MIPS.

AppliedMicro first delivered 64-bit ARM processors to the market with their X-Gene CPU. With AppliedMicro having such embedded customers for their CPUs as Cisco, Hewlett-Packard, Fuji-Xerox, Konica Minolta and Verizon, clearly AppliedMicro understands how to customize a product to match the market needs. In addition, the fact that HeliX uses a customized core versus a more generic ARM design is a huge differentiator in a crowded ARM market, allowing their products to stand out more to potential OEMs.

HeliX Chip 2

With HeliX, AppliedMicro is taking on the embedded market with special System on a Chip (SoC) designs that consolidate much of the circuitry and functions to a single piece of silicon for simplicity, lower cost and better power efficiency. The SoC design allows AppliedMicro to build out a variety of custom parts that can be targeted at very specific uses, optimizing the design to exactly what the specific vertical needs will be.

For example, large network service providers need a low power network switch solution, so there is a Helix model with a 4-core 1.2GHz configuration that does not need a cooling fan (like the typical CPU would require). But don’t expect that these are low end CPUs by any means. On the other end of the spectrum, for enterprise storage, there is a model with four 2GHz cores, dual 10Gb Ethernet, as well as fibre channel and SCSI connectivity.

With the ability to scale up and down depending on the specific application, along with 64-bit addressability, HeliX looks like a formidable competitor in the market. As the embedded market coalesces around ARM and x86, it looks like AppliedMicro has a strong competitor for the ARM half of the embedded market.

Time will tell as the embedded market is driven by design wins, but the list of name-brand vendors stepping up to take a turn on HeliX is pretty impressive at this point and that is a good signal for its future prospects.