Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

AMD Hires Apple’s Head Chip Designer

Chipmaker Advanced Micro Devices just announced that it has poached the head of Apple’s chip design operations to run its chief microprocessor architect.

Jim Keller joined Apple by way of its 2008 acquisition of the start-up PA Semi. Update: Actually it may be a little more complicated than that. See the update at the bottom. (That’s Keller pictured at right with PA Semi co-founder Dan Dobberpuhl, from a 2005 PA Semi publicity shot.) Keller was the original architectect of AMD’s Athlon line of processors, which for a time — in 2005 and 2006 — put a bit of a scare into Intel.

It’s a big win on the personnel front for AMD, which has seen a boatload of talent head for the exits in the last 18 months or so since Dirk Meyer was booted as CEO and former IBM and Lenovo exec Rory Read joined as his replacement.

The hiring is full of historical threads: Keller’s primary job had been to work on Apple’s A4 and A5 processors, the ones that go inside the iPhone and the iPad. Remember that Apple for a long time relied on South Korea’s Samsung — the same Samsung with which it is in an epic legal battle right now — to design and manufacture the chips that went into later generations of the iPod, and then the first iPhone.

Then, in 2008, Apple wrote a $278 million check for PA Semi, and made a bunch of huge strategic choices in the process. First, only three years after having shifted its microprocessor allegiance to Intel and the x86 architecture on the Mac, Apple opted to fully embrace the low-power ARM architecture on its mobile devices. This is a slap that Intel, whose Atom line of chips are to this day still clawing for market success in the mobile market, has never quite gotten over.

Anyway, you know a lot of what happened already. Apple became the master of the design of its own chips, though Samsung continued to build them. Apple then went on to acquire more ARM chip designers, scooping up Intrinsity in 2010.

Outwardly, everyone seemed happy, then Dobberpuhl quietly left Apple in 2010 and joined Agnilux, another chip start-up that wound up being acquired by Google later that year.

So, anyway, back to Keller. I just got a comment from Patrick Moorhead, a former AMD VP and president of Moor Insights, his research firm. “Jim looks like a good pickup for AMD,” Moorhead writes. “Undoubtedly he will be focused on architecting the lowest power cores at a given performance level. Additionally, Keller knows the mobile SOC [system-on-a-chip] game better than most anyone in the industry which will help AMD as those design principles need to come to PC processors.”

Keller’s boss will be Mark Papermaster, the former Apple senior vice president for iPhone engineering who left two years ago this week, following the iPhone 4 AntennaGate flap. Papermaster surfaced first at Cisco Systems, then joined AMD last fall.

So what’s Job One for Keller at AMD? Anand Lal Shimpi at Anandtech puts it pretty simply: Get the performance of AMD’s mainline x86 chips back on track. It has been lagging behind Intel badly in recent years, and its business prospects have suffered mightily.

Like I said, Keller was responsible for a lot of the success that AMD saw during the last decade. During a period in the late 1990s, when Intel was working on the designs that ultimately became the Itanium processor for servers, the computer industry more or less kicked back at Intel’s plans to shift to 64-bit computing because Itanium wasn’t — and isn’t — fully compatible with software written for mainstream x86 processors.

In one of those moments that only a historian of the chip industry could appreciate — and I was in the room — AMD showed up at the 1999 Microprocessor Forum with Hammer, its code name for a different approach that extended the traditional x86 architecture, which was for decades the cornerstone of mainstream personal computers and servers in the 64-bit realm.

Hammer became Athlon, and the marketplace voted with its purchase orders, and sided with AMD’s approach over Intel’s. Itanium was a market failure. And, for a time, AMD won a fair amount of server business away from Intel. That is, until Intel responded with its own variation of AMD’s approach on its server chips. It’s the kind of success that AMD could stand to experience again.

Update: So it seems that Keller joined Apple not directly via the PA Semi acquisition. Longtime chip market analyst Kevin Krewell tells me via Twitter, that Keller had had a falling out with PA Semi management prior to Apple’s 2008 buyout of the startup. Keller he says, got to Apple separately.

@ Jim Keller had a falling out with management at PA Semi and he left before PA was bought by Apple. Jim got to Apple separately.
Kevin Krewell

Who knew? Anyway, now that we’ve cleared that up, here’s the press release:

August 01, 2012 08:00 ET
Computer Architect Jim Keller Joins AMD as Chief of Processor Group

Industry Veteran Architected Several Generations of Popular Apple, Broadcom and AMD Processors

SUNNYVALE, CA–(Marketwire – Aug 1, 2012) – AMD (NYSE: AMD) announced today that Jim Keller, 53, has joined the company as corporate vice president and chief architect of AMD’s microprocessor cores, reporting to chief technology officer and senior vice president of technology and engineering Mark Papermaster. In this role, Keller will lead AMD’s microprocessor core design efforts aligned with AMD’s ambidextrous strategy with a focus on developing both high-performance and low-power processor cores that will be the foundation of AMD’s future products.

“Jim is one of the most widely respected and sought-after innovators in the industry and a very strong addition to our engineering team,” said Papermaster. “He has contributed to processing innovations that have delivered tremendous compute advances for millions of people all over the world, and we expect that his innovative spirit, low-power design expertise, creativity and drive for success will help us shape our future and fuel our growth.”

Keller was most recently a director in the platform architecture group at Apple focusing on mobile products, where he architected several generations of mobile processors, including the chip families found in millions of Apple iPads, iPhones, iPods and Apple TVs. Prior to Apple, Keller was vice president of design for P.A. Semi, a fabless semiconductor design firm specializing in low-power mobile processors that was acquired by Apple in 2008. While there, he led the team responsible for building a powerful networking System on a Chip (SoC) and its integrated PowerPC processor. Keller previously worked at SiByte® and Broadcom as chief architect for a line of scalable, MIPS-based network processors that supported 1Gig networking interfaces, PCI and other control functions. Before Broadcom, he spent several years at AMD, playing an instrumental role on the design team responsible for the groundbreaking AMD Athlon™ 64 and AMD Opteron™ 64 processors, which featured the world’s first native x86-64 bit architecture.

Keller co-authored the widely adopted HyperTransport specification, as well as the innovative x86-64 processor instruction set, which is used around the world today in hundreds of millions of desktop, notebook and server systems. Jim was a corporate consulting engineer at DEC, and architected two generations of Alpha processors during his tenure there. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Electrical Engineering from Penn State University.

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