By CAROLINE GABRIEL
Published: 28 January, 2013
The ARM processor architecture is looking well beyond its mobile device heartland and eyeing a whole range of products from embedded gadgets to servers. Several chip providers are chasing the emerging market for low power blade servers for the cloud, an area where ARM thinks its licensees can displace the incumbent Intel. Qualcomm has joined Marvell, pioneering start-up Calxeda and others in planning a system-on-chip for servers and is advertising posts for specialists for this project.
According to EETimes, Qualcomm's job advertisements, for at least three software engineers, reveal its server ambitions. They say the engineers will work on "architecture/design and system prototypes of Qualcomm's new ARMv8-based server SoC ASICs for the power optimized server market.
The ads also say: "Primary responsibilities include specification, development, porting, integration and shake-out of server platform management software and firmware on prototypes utilizing Qualcomm's new SoC."
The nascent ARM-based server movement is expected to get a major boost from the ARMv8 architecture, the first generation to support 64-bit instruction sets and so level with Intel's x86 in the high end segment. A rush of commercial products is expected in 2014 once v8 has been fully commercialized. However, some early movers like Calxeda and Marvell are already shipping 32-bit server SoCs, though these are mainly to steal a march on rivals and attract customer interest, rather than mass sales. Cloud giants like Microsoft are already testing prototype ARM-based platforms (Microsoft has carried out projects with Calxeda) and Dell, HP and Mitac have all worked on 32-bit prototype platforms.
Among the other chip firms known to be working on ARM server SoCs are AMD, Applied Micro, Cavium, Nvidia and Samsung, and Huawei advertised for ARM server engineers last year too, though these may be for boxes rather than silicon. Texas Instruments has also announced server SoCs, but is targeting them mainly at specialized companion servers or embedded platforms rather than taking on Intel in the data center.
The companies known to be preparing ARM server chips generally aim to start shipping 64-bit SoCs in 2014. Calxeda and Marvell are shipping 32-bit SoCs for servers today with limited traction, mainly in prototyping systems for Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Taiwan's Mitac.
A server move by Qualcomm would be another step away from the firm's previous strategy of sticking to mobile devices - just a few years ago, it said it wanted to concentrate on what it did well, but with its core smartphone sector facing price competition and eventual stagnation, it must seek new bases just as the ARM platform is - in tablets, 'post-PC' products, the internet of things, home networking, and in future servers and wireless infrastructure, especially small cells
Qualcomm doesn't need to play Intel's game. AMD does. Qualcomm can independently design and produce chips and servers and tear away Intel's customers and sell to them. They also have the weight to market their offering on their own. They're as big as Intel.
Qualcomm is uniquely positioned to make a dent in the ARM server space because it has the experience building its own ARM micro-architecture for its Snapdragon series. It can take what its unraveled from that project and apply it to server on chip design. Also, with its substantial market cap, it has the scale to do something like this effectively.