The Switch from Intel to ARM Processors: What It Means for Device Management

Written by Kelsey Kinzer on November 4, 2021

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Once the dominant vendor of microchips at the center of nearly all laptops, desktops, and servers, Intel Corporation has been losing ground to competitors for years. In June 2020, for example, Apple Inc. announced its intention to switch from Intel to ARM processors for its Mac devices. 

Microsoft Corporation followed suit, announcing in December 2020 that it intends to design its own ARM-based processors for Azure-based servers and Surface line of PCs. Meanwhile, Google has been using chips from Qualcomm Inc for its Pixel line of devices and is working on its own customized ARM-based chips. 

While this transition lowers costs and reduces power requirements, it also means the organization’s fleet becomes even more complex to manage. This article delves deeper into the switch from Intel to ARM-based processors and what it means for IT administrators. 

A Brief History of ARM Processors

ARM — formerly an acronym for Advanced RISC Machines — is a family of reduced instruction set computing (RISC) architectures for microprocessors. The concepts behind ARM microprocessors date to 1983, when Acorn Computers Ltd leveraged RISC architecture to design and manufacture microprocessors in Acorn Archimedes.

In 1985, Acorn Computers Ltd partnered with VLSI Technology Inc to design ARM1 that was used in British Broadcasting Corporation Microcomputer (BBC Micro) to implement simulation software. In 1990, Apple Inc. joined Acorn Computers Ltd and VLSI Technology Inc to form Arm Holdings Ltd, whose primary aim was to design ARM processors.  

Arm Holdings Ltd maintains an open architecture when it comes to manufacturing ARM CPUs. The company does not actually produce its own processors. Instead, it licenses the intellectual property (IP) to other companies like Qualcomm and Apple that want to manufacture their own ARM processors. 

When licensed, a company uses the Arm’s architectural model as a blueprint to build systems that leverage ARM processors as their CPUs. This contrasts with x86 processors that have few manufacturers because they are closed-source. Because of the open architecture, a new wave of ARM-powered servers has emerged with systems-on-chip (SoC) to compete against x86 systems. 

Why Are ARM Processors On The Rise?

When implemented correctly, ARM-based servers can deliver enhanced processing capacity while using less power and requiring less cooling than x86-based systems. This makes ARM-based servers suitable for most enterprise-grade data centers.  

ARM CPUs are also low-cost, smaller, and more energy-efficient than their x86 counterparts. This makes them perfect candidates for mobile devices like tablets and smartphones. In addition to giving the device longer battery life, ARM processors also generate less heat, allowing the smartphone or tablet to be constantly held.  

Because of these features, the number of ARM-based smartphones, tablets, wearables, and other smart devices has increased rapidly. In February 2021, Arm reported that its partners had shipped a staggering 6.7 billion ARM chips in the fourth quarter of 2020. This means that ARM processors outsell all the major CPU instruction set architectures — x86, Power, ARC, and MIPS — combined.  

The popularity of ARM processors has ignited interest from major companies such as Apple Inc. and Microsoft Corporation. Apple, which had been using x86 CPUs for over 15 years, announced the switch from Intel to ARM processors for its Mac devices.

Similarly, Microsoft Corporation, which has used Intel processors for over 30 years, is also investing in ARM in ARM-based PCs. The company is also planning to eliminate application migration barriers this year.

What the Switch from Intel to ARM Processors Means for IT Administrators

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) trend is now an inevitable reality in most organizations, thanks to its inherent benefits such as improved employee satisfaction, reduced IT costs and enhanced productivity. ResearchAndMarkets’ latest statistics show that 87% of organizations allowed employees to use their preferred devices for work in some form in 2020. 

Despite BYOD’s benefits, IT administrators increasingly encounter many challenges such as employee onboarding, scalability, security, and software difficulties. The switch from Intel to ARM processors will undoubtedly usher in low-cost, smaller, and power-efficient devices, accelerating a wave of new devices that will co-mingle with existing, older-yet-viable devices and servers. 

Previously, ARM-based CPUs were most commonly found in smartphones and tablets. Now, they are increasingly finding their way in desktops, laptops, and hybrid devices. Arm Holding’s open architecture allows semiconductor vendors to fabricate their own processors, providing the flexibility that enables ARM chips to power a broad assortment of devices. 

The Drawback of Flexibility is Inconsistency

However, the downside of this flexibility is the inconsistencies that arise in ARM chips from different vendors. For example, both Advanced Micro Devices, Inc and Samsung manufacture ARM-based CPUs, but their processors differ significantly.  Meanwhile, Intel follows a closed source approach where it manufactures its own proprietary chips. 

This is problematic because x86-based applications may not run on ARM processors. While this challenge will definitely affect developers, it also negatively impacts IT administrators. The inconsistencies in chips are likely to complicate device management for organizations that have embraced the BYOD phenomenon. 

Specifically, IT administrators need to think about what onboarding the device looks like, and ensure compatibility with existing tech stacks to make sure the endpoint is correctly connected to the organization’s network. They’ll have to ensure that any software applications a new employee needs to access is compatible, or that alternatives exist and can be properly categorized. When performing onboarding tasks, they must also ensure that the device is securely communicating and updated with the latest firmware. 

IT administrators also require the flexibility to connect those endpoints to various cloud platforms in a multi-cloud era. With heterogeneous devices and multiple operating systems (OSes) in play, IT administrators are forced to leverage dynamic siloed management approaches. 

Siloed management methods have numerous problems, including:

  • They are tedious and complex to set up. IT assets inventory management is perhaps the most tedious and challenging job in a fast-paced digital environment with multiple heterogeneous devices. Lack of visibility and oversight in siloed management practices wastes time and money for the organization. 
  • They increase room for errors. Leveraging manual tools when onboarding heterogeneous devices across multiple platforms can result in many mistakes, potentially impacting the bottom line. 
  • They extend and complicate audits. Siloed management methodologies often result in information isolation. When an organization’s systems act independently, policies and processes get repeated, leading to inconsistencies that complicate compliance and audit requirements.
  • They introduce many security holes. A typical siloed IT structure makes it difficult for IT administrators to enforce various security actions, especially when different actors handle actionable operations.
  • They incur additional costs. When organizations are locked into a patchwork of multiple, siloed solutions to address their device management needs, they are not only paying for each subscription in addition to the common tiered pricing strategies, but also for the costs associated with implementing and managing the multiple applications required for a typical heterogeneous device fleet.

Leverage JumpCloud to Streamline Device Management When Switching from Intel to ARM Processors

Managing heterogeneous endpoints is increasingly becoming difficult and complex in today’s fast-paced and ever-evolving IT environments. This problem will compound as vendors switch from Intel to ARM processors, potentially increasing siloed management practices in organizations. 

JumpCloud has been at the core of developing user and device management systems for years, and takes a vendor-agnostic, identity-driven approach to device management. Organizations can use the JumpCloud Directory Platform to orchestrate and automate onboarding tasks with cutting-edge device management capabilities that are not OS-specific. 

From Intel to ARM64 to M1 and everything in between, it doesn’t matter what your fleet is running on. You can say goodbye to siloed management methods and leverage our cloud directory platform to manage Windows, Linux, and Mac devices everywhere they exist, from anywhere with a single pane of glass. 

Start a trial of JumpCloud, and experience first-hand the full functionality of our platform.. 

Kelsey Kinzer

Kelsey is a passionate storyteller and Content Writer at JumpCloud. She is particularly inspired by the people who drive innovation in B2B tech. When away from her screen, you can find her climbing mountains and (unsuccessfully) trying to quit cold brew coffee.

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