'Google wants to invent it, wants parts that are optimized for their own s**t and they don't want Bing to have it'
The company also employs a number of hardware experts for its data centre gear, and likely for a number of skunkworks projects in its "Google X" advanced products wing.
So - Google has an option and the apparent expertise to do some interesting stuff. What could it get out of ARM that it couldn't get out of x86?
"Google wants to invent it and wants to own it and want parts that are optimized for their own shit and they don't want [Microsoft's] Bing to have it," one highly placed source within the semiconductor industry told The Register.
"Google could be including blocks of intellectual property that advantages their software. They could be putting huge amounts of IO on the part," our contact added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"They could, since they purchased the patents from MetaRAM, be making modifications in the DRAM controller. I think what we know for sure is that if you control the hardware and software and a server system you have all the levers."
The well-placed source strongly believed it would make sense for Google to at some point do a custom chip as it would give it greater secrecy, greater control over its infrastructure and perhaps the ability to increase the capabilities of its systems by implementing workloads in hardware.
But Intel has been in this game for a long, long time, and as a consequence can bring process advantages and expertise to bear that mean the chance of Google being able to actually develop a better general-purpose chip than Intel is slim.
Intel is going to be taping out 14nm low-power chips next year, which will combine excellent performance with a lower-than-usual power draw. ARM processors, by comparison, will be pumped out of fabs operated by TSMC, Global Foundries, and Samsung, among others, which are thought to be running at the high-20nm node at the moment, and may move to 20nm by end of 2014.
"With over 50 server, storage and communications designs based on 22nm Intel Atom C2000 (Avoton) SoC launched in September, we are well on our way in leading the low-power 64-bit system-on-chips (SoCs) segment," an Intel spokesman told El Reg. "Today, Intel Atom is still the only available 64-bit server SoC offering leading energy efficiency and performance and we expect that to continue into next year and beyond as we approach yet another generation of 14nm-based SoCs."
Though Intel is blustering that it has great capabilities here, we suspect that Google is doing the sums and figuring out if it could maybe split some large percentage of its workload off x86 and onto low-power highly customised ARM-driven packages. Though Intel offers some customization to large customers like Facebook and eBay (and probably Google), it does not yet afford them the flexibility granted by an ARM licence.
For Google, if it can take 20 percent of its several million compute nodes and switch them to a processor with drastically lower power consumption and/or bespoke capabilities, we reckon it may be worth it. Though all companies try to behave rationally, there's also some serious uber-boffin cred here that we reckon the company's employees would like.
Though Google has not confirmed the report, spokeswoman Liz Markman did tell El Reg: "We are actively engaged in designing the world's best infrastructure. This includes both hardware design (at all levels) and software design."
It seems that for sufficiently large tech companies, there may be some advantages stemming from designing their own chips; it's likely the technology will be sub-par compared to Intel or AMD, in terms of general-purpose raw performance, but the lower power bill – and the opportunity to customise the silicon to accelerate particular tasks – may be enough to motivate a move.
There is one other reason why these rumors are circulating – to keep market-leader Intel honest. "The reason we're rooting for the ARM ecosystem so much is that this is the healthiest the ecosystem has been since AMD made the Opteron," Facebook's hardware design chief Frank Frankovsky said recently. ®