Russian company promises x86-on-ARM emulation

October 4, 2012 // 10:28 a.m.

Tags: #acorn #amd #archimedes #arm #arm-architecture #elbrus-technologies #emulation #intel #pc-emulator #riscos #riscpc #virtualisation #x86

A Russian software company is working on a stop-gap measure that should give Intel cause for concern: high-performance x86 emulation code for ARM architecture processors.

Designed to aid companies looking to move from high-power Intel chips to energy-efficient ARM microservers, the software allows native x86 code to execute on the ARM architecture. While doing so loses a great deal of performance - as is always the case with emulation - it provides companies with a way of migrating to the ARM platform while they wait for the software to be ported to native ARM code.

According to EETimes, the software from Elbrus Technologies is already fully operational but at a somewhat unusable 60 per cent performance penalty compared to native ARM code. By the end of 2014, when the software is expected to be ready to launch, the company hopes to get that down to around 20 per cent.

Even at 20 per cent, the move will leave companies on the performance back-foot: modern ARM processors are significantly simpler than their x86 counterparts, which is one of the reasons for their energy efficiency. A high-end server-centric ARM chip may run as many as four processing cores at a speed up to 2GHz, which compares poorly with the likes of AMD's Opteron and Intel's Xeon families reaching speeds above 4GHz and with up to 16 cores per chip.

Where ARM has an advantage, however, is in its power efficiency: beating both Intel and AMD in performance-per-watt, it's possible to fit significantly more ARM cores into the same power and thermal envelopes than x86 processors. A 20 per cent performance drop per processor, then, isn't quite so critical when you have two, three or four times as many processors to play with.

This is far from the first time an x86 emulation engine has been developed for the ARM architecture. Back when Acorn, the microcomputing company that gave birth to ARM, was still a going concern, a popular add-on for its ARM-based Archimedes and RiscPC products was a software 'PC Emulator' which allowed the systems to run MS-DOS 3.3 on emulated x86 hardware.

Should Elbrus be able to boost its performance as high as it hopes, and provide an application-level translation engine - rather than the full-system virtualisation offered by previous x86-on-ARM packages - ARM's chances of taking on Intel in its core markets will get a significant shot in the proverbial.