Chip Processor War Moves to Servers Market

It's no secret that {complink 444|ARM Ltd.} has been kicking {complink 2657|Intel Corp.}'s butt in smartphones. But ARM is now aiming higher, trying to hit the world's biggest semiconductor company by revenue squarely in the jaw in servers, where 95 percent of the machines are based on Intel microprocessors.

The low power consumption for which ARM processors are famous, and which made them the processor of choice for mobile devices, has become more attractive to server manufacturers as datacenters continue to struggle with the heat generated and the power consumed by traditional server hardware. The situation will only get worse as cloud computing and big-data applications create the need for bigger and bigger server farms.

A series of announcements at ARM's developers' conference in October showed just how serious ARM is about getting into the ring. First, it announced a new interconnect technology for multi-core servers that it claims can deliver up to one terabit of usable system bandwidth a second. Then it launched collaboration with Red Hat and Applied Micro Circuits to develop a 64-bit design platform that could “dramatically lower the total cost of ownership of cloud computing, data centers and enterprises.”

As part of the announcement, Applied Micro described its Micro X-Gene “server on a chip,” aimed at the big-data and cloud server market. And Red Hat pledged to build support within the Fedora community for ARM's 64-bit architecture. That was followed by the introduction of ARM's Cortex-A50 chip, a 64-bit processor aimed at networking, server, and high-performance computing.

There are enough chip and server companies promoting ARM-based processors for so-called microservers (basically server boxes that can hold more and more processors and yet keep energy consumption low) that the press is starting to talk about the datacenter as the next chip battleground. Semiconductor startup Calxeda, originally funded by ARM in 2008, has been promoting the idea ever since and introduced its first chip, the 32-bit EnergyCore SoC, in November 2011.

Marvell has also licensed ARM for a server chip, and in August said it has teamed with flash memory vendor SanDisk Corp. on a 32-bit server reference design incorporating SanDisk's flash-based solid-state-disk modules. Also in August, chip vendor Cavium got a license to ARM's 64-bit v8 server architecture. And in November, AMD said that it would begin shipping 64-bit Opteron server processors based on the ARM architecture in 2014.

System vendors, including Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Penguin Computing, and Boston Ltd., either have introduced ARM-based servers or are working on designs. Until October, most of the activity had been around ARM's 32-bit architecture, but 64-bit systems are what's really needed for the enterprise market. That's why ARM's announcements in October were particularly significant.

Meanwhile Linaro, a non-profit engineering organization that develops open-source software for the ARM architecture, says it's working with a group of companies to accelerate development of Linux for ARM servers. The group includes AMD, Applied Micro Circuits Corporation, Calxeda, Canonical, Cavium, Facebook, HP, Marvell, and Red Hat.

Intel is fighting back. In December it introduced its S1200 Atom processor, which it called the world's first low-power, 64-bit server-class SoC for microservers. “The data center continues to evolve into unique segments and Intel continues to be a leader in these transitions,” said Diane Bryant, vice president and general manager of Intel's datacenter business. “We recognized several years ago the need for a new breed of high-density, energy-efficient servers and other datacenter equipment.”

Apparently, this is not Intel's first foray into the microserver space. According to one news report, Bryant said Intel was responsible for “launching the [microserver] product category” in 2009. But interest in microservers seems to have taken the company by surprise. In a March 2011 fact sheet, Intel said it didn't expect microservers to make up more than 10 percent of the server market.

Judging from the number of chip and system vendors jumping into the microserver market, I bet it's going to be much bigger than that. With the PC market dying and the mobile phone market becoming saturated, it'll be interesting to watch these chip giants fight over it.

16 comments on “Chip Processor War Moves to Servers Market

  1. t.alex
    December 20, 2012

    These are exciting moves from ARM in their fight against Intel. I am curious what can be the best definition for 'microserver' in this case? Are these products aimed at home users?

  2. Himanshugupta
    December 21, 2012

    Maybe microserver is a low-power, low cost architecture based server focused towards small enterprises. I doubt whether its focused towards home or individuals. 

    But i do not agree with the statement that smartphone market is saturating. 

  3. Wale Bakare
    December 21, 2012

    You are right on their target towards SME but i dont really think microserver architecture would be low as such. It is just a reduction in racking/rack size and  hardware components.

  4. bruzzer
    December 21, 2012

    From the industry this analyst covers intersection of x86 and ARM with a current micro server focus. Currently ARM 32 bit is an evolving innovation for adopters on performance per watt that does offer a power reduction without performance penalty for the right applications; NAS, small work group, home server and commercial slim workloads.

    Right approach includes independent VARS who are software system integrators interfacing with system developers like Boston and Cogent too provide commercial software systems integration addressing customer's working specification. These are not yet off the shelf solutions despite 32 bit OS and applications availability so custom software-system integration is the key.

    32 bit ARM with floating point acceleration from TI is becoming available for data analytics. Where again the channel entry point is through system software developer teamed with the platform system producer. 

    64 bit ARM now under development is currently an interesting option for data center innovator adapters on the potential of working with ARM silicon and system design producer for platform input, resulting in platform design for use. Recall I said innovator adapters with all the prerequisites of co-development that description implies.

    While there are examples of compact self contained servers, from MARVELL and Mitac, the idea of low power serves is density in full rack; low power = high density.  When combined with switch in SOC to enable multi core communications across switch fabric; in VM mode is aimed to resolve Xeon utilization issue and to knock the switch out of the rack equation for cost/price.

    On Intel v ARM, currently there are no suitable low power Intel offerings available with the first scheduled mid 2013 that is octa Atom. Presently E3 1220v2 dual core offering is discontinued unavailable through channels.  New S1200 Atom a dual core is performance limited to toy server.

    What's important to understand is this market is not about single processors on board or even four quads on board that do exist for Calxeda and Marvell today  This market is about many ARM multi cores on blades that can achieve performance per watt advantage into current Xeon E5 24/26xx and higher price rungs.  

    Mike Bruzzone, Camp Marketing

  5. itguyphil
    December 22, 2012

    I don't think so. Home users don't have a concept for how to use servers.

    I think it might be used to consolidate in small businesses.

  6. bruzzer
    December 23, 2012

    Yes a reduction in rack size, but also increase in the density of compute nodes per full rack, plus the consolidation of hardware components into silicon for switch fabric.

    The first ARM server from ZT Systems designed by Phytek including discrete ECC was introduced November 2010 on ST Spear 1310; SOC discontinued 2011. Like many nascent ARM platform implementations there was no OS.  Was aimed for home Network Appliance; flicks, photos, files.

    Currently there is Network Appliance example from Huawei Systems Group, based on Marvell Armada, chosen over Intel Atom for performance and low power.

    Yes commercial server is the aim targeting Xeon product and price voids. Think many ARMs on blade meaning focused applications and system management.

    Today for 32 bit ARM moving into 64 bit (think validation site preparedness) there is a green field business opportunity, for VARs and Consultants engaged in software system integration; Canonical, Red Hat, others.  Where application system management written for the type of work loads ARM platform's can do well on v Xeon is a unique and differentiated business opportunity.

    There is also a green field opportunity for benchmark authors that are not Intel SPEC or Intel Hadopp. Rather ARM SPEC and ARM Hadoop on these platform operating system and management workloads that ARM platform's do well on aimed toward 64 bit. 

    Focus on what ARM does well on v Intel is a unique applications business in the new computing paradigm. Develop to create an ARM server paradigm on unique application requirements, addressing sales requirement, that is not the typical Intel requirement.

    ARM server is a viable high margin business.

    Mike Bruzzone, Camp Marketing

  7. Wale Bakare
    December 23, 2012

    Targeting multi-task industrial applications with 16bits and 32 bits processors are other alternative to explore. Even with Internet -of – things, cyber physical systems/Real time OS and M2M massive markets are emerging for them to explore. But if looking at these areas, what about Microchip's PICs which also capturing other complex applications?

  8. ahdand
    December 24, 2012

    This has a direct link with the other so the war will definitely spread to its sub branches.

  9. Wale Bakare
    December 24, 2012

    Yes of course. The pointer – markets are open and the game would probably be won by the best knight movers. 

  10. t.alex
    December 25, 2012

    Home servers may be 'disguised' into some products such as home network storage, or some products for storing photos, music, videos to be shared throughout the house. 

  11. itguyphil
    December 27, 2012

    That I get but not for 'true' server purposes. It will most likely be media server usage.

  12. bolaji ojo
    December 28, 2012

    Nobody likes to remain an underdog forever. This was a battle that everyone expected but most thought ARM would never be able to win. I disagree. It may not win outright but the constant nibbling on Intel market share and the desire of OEM customers for more than one source, technology advancement and lower costs will position ARM IP for more than just the mobile market.

  13. hash.era
    December 30, 2012

    Surely there are conflictions when it comes for industry based servers and home based servers but that wont be much of a problem since those 2 vary based on their requirements and data which needs to be handled.

    January 1, 2013

    There must be great opportunity in both ends of the pipe: low cost mobile processors for client based apps and super powerful processors for the host based servers managing cloud based solutions.  I would look at companies like ARM and Qualcomm to do very well.

  15. t.alex
    January 8, 2013

    Yep.. ARM is eating slowly. I remember somewhere mention internet companies like Facebook and some others are having there own lowcost server farms. That is these servers are cheap, easy to replace and consume less power, and of course a good candidate is using ARM processor. 


  16. ahdand
    January 26, 2013

    Exactly Wale and I think this is a good sign for most of the markets including consumers, since there will be competition all around and the features will get upgraded in no time to match up its opponent.

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