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ARM aims for security, power savings

With cell phones mimicking computers more and more, chip designer ARM is moving toward increased security and scaled-down power consumption.

SAN JOSE, Calif.--With cell phones mimicking computers more and more, chip designer ARM is moving toward increased security and scaled-down power consumption.

The Cambridge, England-based company released a new blueprint this week at the Microprocessor Forum here. The microprocessor blueprint includes TrustZone, a security technology that prevents hacks and curbs viruses, and Intelligent Energy Manager, which slows the processor when it's not in use to conserve battery power.

The chip design--called ARM 1176JZ--is designed for 3G phones, which are increasingly being used to swap files on the Internet and perform other functions usually associated with desktop computers, said Simon Segars, executive vice president of engineering at ARM.

"People aren't downloading much into their phones at the moment, but carriers are worried that someone could download something that could take down the entire network," he said. "Downloading music is another issue."

TrustZone in many ways functions like Microsoft's pending Next Generation Secure Computing Platform, formerly known as Palladium. Roughly, TrustZone creates secure areas inside a phone that protect sensitive data or applications. Selected data, such as credit card numbers, are encrypted and can only be accessed, ideally, by the owners or trusted third parties. Likewise, viruses downloaded from the Internet cannot enter secure areas inside the phone.

Like Microsoft's platform, TrustZone can also be used by content providers to curb or prevent copying, Segars said.

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Cell phone makers and network operators have been asking for greater security, Segars said. ARM does not make chips and technically does not sell products to carriers, but it is involved in the process because of its role in the cell phone industry. More than half of the world's cell phones use chips that are based on designs from ARM.

In addition to chipmakers, ARM is working with operating system makers, such as Microsoft and Symbian, and with cell phone manufacturers, to make sure the technology is adopted.

Meanwhile, 3G networks are also creating battery headaches. Consumers are used to extensive battery life on cell phones: Tens of hours of talk time from a single charge and a hundred hours of standby time are now expected. 3G phones change that. In Britain, for example, one of the first 3G phones was shipped with a spare battery.

"The computing overhead to do 3G is massive," said John Cornish, director of product marketing at ARM. "People expect color screens, fancy user interfaces and all that...You can't just tweak the transistors anymore."

Among the power-saving techniques, Intelligent Energy Manager (IEM) examines code coming into a processor and determines whether the processor speed needs to be increased, which would mean a boost in energy consumption, or whether it can be slowed. IEM also comes with a sleep mode that allows a cell phone to go dormant without wiping out the data in active memory.

The ARM 1176JZ core is set to head to manufacturers in the second quarter of next year. The release of a design's plan from ARM typically precedes market entry by about a year to 18 months.

In addition, ARM released a draft of its 1156T2 design--for chips to run hard drives and other so-called embedded applications. The chip design contains the Thumb 2 instructions for efficiently processing basic tasks.