Enthusiasts Gather Together to Build a Powerful ARM Desktop PC

ARM processor

A group of ARM hardware enthusiasts gathered at Linaro Connect to conceptualize a powerful ARM PC. In the end the group settled on building a computer like the Intel NUC—a mini-desktop with a powerful board computer in it. The session that was held is available on Linaro’s site and highlighted issues involved in building and supporting an ARM-based PC. There were concerns about whether ARM risk chips would deliver performance adequate to run powerful applications. Also concerns about components and about providing a Linux user experience acceptable to users.

Yang Zhang, director of the technologies group at Linaro stated, “Based on a research and efforts today, building an ideal PC is going to be hard.” Attendees quickly agreed that the ARM PC would need an expandable x86-style board with DDR4 memory DIMM slot, and NVMe or SATA slots for plugging in SSDs or other drives. Other features would include gigabit slots and USB slots. Many ARM-based computer boards like Raspberry Pi 3 and Pine64 can be used as PCs. They do have limited expandability and components integrated on the board which are not ideal for PCs handling heavy workloads.

Zhang also pointed out that LPDDR4, which is used in such “mobile” chipsets, is slower than DDR4 memory. This is why the DIMM slots would be needed on the ARM PC. An interesting suggestion was Rockchip’s RK3399, which is being used in Samsung’s Chromebook Pro. It has PCI-Express and USB 3.0. Google and Samsung have been putting in a great deal of work for Linux support on the chip. But it still is a mobile chip, and not designed for full-powered ARM desktop.

“I have a 24-core Opteron right. To replace that I would need a 64-core Cortex A73 or something, which doesn’t exist,” said the attendee who suggested the RK3399.

The discussion later became a battle between server chips and mobile chips, which each had their issues. While the server chips have good software support, they are expensive. The mobile chips are cheap but have poor Linux OS support. Software support would need to be added by independent developers, and that can become an extensive amount of work. The initial PC might have a server chip with decent Linux kernel support, sufficient memory and standard interfaces. Decent graphics will matter more, as well as ensuring that standard components like heatsinks and memory DIMMs can be bought off the shelf. The initial reason for the meeting was to get the ideas started for the development of a real desktop based on ARM processor. The PC will likely be developed by 96boards, which implement specifications to build open-source development boards.


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