Intel leapfrogs ARM (for now) with Atom server SoC
12/11/2012 3:00 PM EST
SAN JOSE, Calif. – Leaping ahead of a growing onslaught of ARM server SoCs, Intel Corp. rolled out its dual-core, 64-bit Atom enterprise SoC, claiming 20 design wins in microservers, comms and storage. It also said it will pack an Ethernet fabric on to its next-generation, Avoton, a 22-nm chip shipping in 2013 that is expected to use out-of-order cores for greater performance.
The move puts Intel well ahead of a half-dozen ARM-based competitors, none of which will have 64-bit chips until sometime in 2013. Even those who have working 32-bit chips now have far fewer design wins.
Intel claims the new S1200 chip, dubbed Centerton, displaces the PowerPC in a comms control plane design and ARM in a storage system. The design wins span a range of top-tier OEMs to little known names, including Accusys, CETC, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Huawei, Inspur, Microsan, Qsan, Quanta, Supermicro and Wiwynn.
The battle is only just begun. ARM server SoC backers now include Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro, Cavium, Calxeda, Nvidia and Samsung. In addition, Freescale, LSI and Cavium are moving toward ARM cores for server and storage SoCs, joining Texas Instruments.
Many in the ARM camp have committed to 64-bit products which likely won't enter volume production until 2014. Intel vowed to provide annual upgrades of its new Atom enterprise SoC line, including a 14-nm part to come as early as 2014.
“This doesn’t have a big impact on the ARM 64-bit players because they have developed their road maps with Intel’s Centerton and Avoton in mind,” said Patrick Moorhead, principal of Moor Insights and Strategy (Austin, Texas). The new Atom chip, “will not be lowest power or densest solution compared with ARM-based solutions from Calxeda, Applied Micro or AMD,” he added.
An HP representative said the company is shipping beta versions of Centerton systems to customers. The beta chip addresses a handful of applications that don’t require heavy CPU processing, including memcached, off-line analytics and Hadoop, he said.
HP will announce early next year a new system called Genesis. The company has said it will support a mix and match variety of Atom and ARM server SoCs in a single chassis.
A Facebook representative at the Intel event said wimpy cores like the Atom SoC can handle similar work for a half to a one-third the power of so-called brawny cores such as Intel’s Xeon server CPU. He did not say whether Facebook will use the new chips, instead speaking in general terms about supporting the new SoCs as long as they have 64-bit addressing and error correction codes.
A Microsoft data center chief architect said using x86-compatible CPUs for both wimpy and brawny cores helps lower complexity and cost. “Once again Intel and Microsoft are working together to supply best platform for our customers,” said Jeffrey Snover of Microsoft.
“Today there are no enterprise-class arm servers…the comparison [of ARM SoCs to the S1200] is not apples to apples,” because the ARM chips lack 64-bit support, said Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel’s Datacenter and Connected Systems Group.
“We know investments are being made, and we have a good view into the alternative architecture,” said Bryant. “We believe we have a substantial performance and performance-per-watt advantage, and at the system level a compelling solution."
Intel’s gross margins for the Atom SoCs are good, she told a Wall Street analyst. “Because of the density of compute, our revenue with either Xeon or Atom is a wash--in fact, Atom is slightly greater, so it’s absolutely fine if Atom does well,” she said.
The S1200 is a 6W part with two, dual-threaded, in-order Atom cores. The SoC includes a controller supporting up 8 GBytes DDR3 memory. The 64-bit chip also supports Intel’s virtualization technologies, eight lanes of PCI Express 2.0 and ECC
It comes in three versions, with frequency ranging from 1.6 to 2.0 GHz. Costs start at $54 in the thousands.