Apple’s Move to ARM Ushers in a New Era of Software Development

ARM processors promise higher performance, less power, and eventually, faster web experiences.


More than a decade has passed since the late Steve Jobs announced to the world that Apple was transitioning from PowerPC chips by IBM to x86 chips by Intel. Fast forward to 2021: Apple is beginning the process of transitioning all of its desktops and notebooks away from x86 Intel chips in favor of its own M1 chip, an ARM-based CPU built entirely by and for Apple.

While ARM processors are not new—your iPhone already runs one—with M1, Apple is taking what it has achieved with ARM in its mobile category and transferring it to the notebook and desktop computing environments. I predict the outcome will be a fundamental shift in how software is written as ARM-based CPUs become more widely available.

Let’s explore why you should even care, expected speed and cost savings across workloads, and why I think ARM will shift software writing. As a developer myself, Apple’s claim that M1 delivers higher performance using less power is fascinating because we’re at the cusp of new data processing speeds.

Why the dev community should give an ARM

If you have been watching the progression of Apple’s A-series chips used in iOS devices, then you know that each chip has managed to be (sometimes significantly) more powerful than its predecessor. Those of us who think about how we equip our engineering teams are not surprised that Apple has introduced this powerful type of chip into Macs.

Although we are based in Australia, my co-founders and I spend some time each year in San Francisco, where many of our customers are based. We’ve observed (anecdotally, of course) that many developers are using Macs. Right now, they’re Intel-based and so they build and deploy to the same CPUs. But soon, ARM processors will be in the hands of many more developers as M1 chips become the de facto standard.

But I’m not here to just sing the praises of Apple Silicon, because this breakthrough is bigger than Apple. AWS has recently launched a new low-cost, high-performance class of EC2 instances powered by their ARM-based Graviton processor. ARM architecture is the future of CPUs and other manufacturers will catch on.

This past December, Qualcomm president Christiano Amon was interviewed on Vergecast and had this to say about M1:

“The ecosystem is going to move and it showed that Microsoft and Qualcomm were in the right trajectory. It’s about battery life, it’s about connected, it’s about a whole different multimedia experience.”

It is worth noting that the developer tooling space is playing catch up to ARM. Homebrew, the biggest tool in the developer community managing third-party tools, doesn’t support the ARM processors just yet across Macs.

Speed and cost savings across workloads

ARM is based on RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer) architecture, designed to execute a smaller number of tasks at higher speeds, resulting in less power consumption. Such an architecture is obviously ideal for chips in devices like smartphones and wearables.

ARM’s design opens the door to significant cost savings as you move workloads over, including Continuous Integration (CI), in-memory caches, and microservices. X. When it comes to the CPU you use for CI/CD, it all comes down to speed and cost. The secret to speeding up CI/CD workloads is to parallelize the individual parts, and running those parts as fast as possible without breaking the bank.

Cloud providers are contributing to these cost savings by investing big in the speed and performance of their ARM processors.

In particular, AWS’s Graviton2 processors claim up to 40 percent better price-performance than comparable x86-64 CPUs. When you consider the highly-ephemeral nature of CI tasks combined with the dynamic scaling cloud providers like AWS provide, even a small performance improvement can translate to huge savings, particularly in large-scale environments.

ARM will change how software is written

Most software, excluding mobile development, is built to run on AMD or Intel CPUs. The biggest barrier up to this point has been the lack of available workstations that developers could use to write ARM-based software. Apple has changed this balance with the introduction of M1 processors.

Already, developers are seeing unexpected benefits with their new M1 gear, from being able to reproduce hardware-specific errors in their pipelines to seeing performance improvements even when running in x86-64 emulation with Rosetta2.

I think by the end of 2022, developers will be building and deploying to ARM. In fact, Adobe is already leading the pack with its release of ARM native software in its Creative Suite, with more companies releasing ARM native or M1-friendly software every day.

Going forward

ARM’s architecture is set to transform edge computing, data server centers, machine learning applications, and more. There’s been speculation that all software will have to be re-written due to Apple’s switch. I don’t believe that will be the case, but there will be some recompiling that teams will have to do.

Keith Pitt

Keith Pitt is the co-founder and CTO of Buildkite, the fastest way to reliably test and build software at any scale. Keith was previously a lead engineer at several Australian developer-first companies including Envato, Qantas and Pin Payments. He also built, launched, and sold Desktoppr to a private purchaser before teaming up with his Buildkite co-founders.

As a big believer in the power of putting the right tools in the hands of developers, Keith is always looking to find ways to make software faster and more enjoyable. Outside of work, Keith is a proud new father, Perth resident, retired magician (don’t make him pull out his South Australian Young Magician of the Year award), and grower of avocado trees.