Samsung forging ARM server chips?

Maybe so, maybe not

The Wall Street Journal has played a variant of "connect the dots" using LinkedIn profiles of chip techies formerly at AMD and now working at Samsung Electronics across town in Austin, Texas, and has come to the conclusion that Samsung is getting ready to jump into the server-processor market with derivatives of the ARM RISC processor.

El Reg contacted a spokesperson for Samsung Austin Semiconductor, where all the hiring actions seems to be going on right now, for comment. But Samsung executives had not yet gotten back to us with a statement at press time.

Samsung Austin Semiconductor is a fab operation that the Korean maker of main and flash memories opened in June 2007 after a $3.5bn investment in shiny new equipment and a 1.6 million square foot facility to wrap around it. Samsung shelled out $1.4bn in 1996 to build a DRAM plant in Austin, which is still operating today, and the combined plants and the engineering teams that design chips now total over 2,000 workers.

Back in March 2010, as part of a $3.6bn expansion of its Austin wafer-baking operations, Samsung hung out a giant help-wanted sign, while at the same time creating the Samsung Austin Research Center.

Last May, SARC, as the design unit is called, put out a statement saying that it was planning to hire 30 chip designers in 2011 to help staff what vice president of design Keith Hawkins called a "a full-fledged Austin-based chip design center." A report in the Austin Statesman said that SARC had 80 engineers and was moving to a new facility during the summer.

The center was created specifically to work on ARM-based system-on-chip (SoC) designs, and the idea was that Apple, Samsung's primary external SoC customer, was the biggest customer for SARC services.

Apple, of course, doesn't talk about where it gets its ARM-based chips for its iPhones and iPads, but it is commonly believed that Apple designs the processors and Samsung does an overlay for main memory and then does the packaging for the chips.

Don Clark over at the WSJ makes a convincing argument that Samsung might be up to something in the server space. You have a lot of server people formerly from AMD, which has a whole new management team, who are looking for jobs and finding them at Samsung.

But you also have to remember not to jump to conclusions. Three years ago it was Apple poaching the blade server and chip geek Mark Papermaster from IBM in the wake of buying PowerPC clone server chip maker PA Semi, which had plenty of server expertise. None of it was used to make servers, and in fact, Apple has since then ditched its server business.

Let's start with Keith Hawkins, who says in his LinkedIn profile that SARC is "continuing to expand in most design areas especially the front-end space for System, SOC and CPU architecture, verification and performance modeling."

He then adds: "We now have our lead CPU and System Architects in place as well as our verification and performance leads. We are about to kick it in high gear with our newest design program."

Hawkins was director of engineering for Sun Microsystems' Microelectronics division for a little more than a year between the time Oracle was thinking about buying Sun and finally did, and was previously a BP of design engineering for AMD for nearly 16 years.

And Hawkins apparently likes to hire PC and server processor engineers.

  • Brad Burgess says on his LinkedIn profile that he is chief CPU architect at Samsung, hired last August. He was a senior fellow at AMD, working on the low-power "Bobcat" processors, among other things, for nearly nine years. Before that, he was the chief PowerPC architect at Motorola.
  • Jim Mergard joined Samsung last June as chief system architect, according to his profile, after being a vice president and engineering chief at AMD working on mainstream processor architectures for more than 16 years.
  • And then there's the hire that seems to have got the tongues a-wagging on Wall Street: Samsung's hiring of Pat Patla, the general manager of AMD's Opteron line since 2003, who is now simply labeled as a vice president at Samsung in his LinkedIn profile.

Calxeda, the server-chip upstart that has crafted an ARM-based processor called the EnergyCore aimed specifically at hyperscale web applications, knows a thing or two about hunting for chip talent in the Austin area. Karl Freund, vice president of marketing at the ARM server startup, tells El Reg that he doesn't know what Samsung is up to, but they are both chasing the same techies right now.

"Part of me hopes they enter the server market because it validates the ARM server chip market," says Freund. "The more, the merrier. People don't get into the market because of a press release from Calxeda, but because they are being told by customers to solve specific problems."

It is equally likely that after their experiences at Sun and AMD in the server racket, that at least some of these former AMD chipheads are looking to get out of the server business for a while. You just can't tell from the outside. But it is an intriguing idea, just the same, if it turns out that Samsung is getting into the server chip biz.

Maybe Nvidia will hire Samsung to do its server chip designs? Whatever happened to "Project Denver" anyway? Hmm... ®

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