Smartmobe brain maker Qualcomm teases 64-bit ARM server chip secrets

Prototype has 24 cores, in the hands of techies to test drive


'This is more of a marathon and not a sprint'

Then came the pitch – why should someone buy Qualcomm kit? "There's a very dramatic change in the ecosystem; a tsunami through the market. This is a good time for a new entrant to come in."

"This is more of a marathon and not a sprint," he added.

Qualcomm has its eyes on China, where we're told demand is huge for servers and cloud systems. Worldwide, according to IDC and Gartner, from 2013 to 2018, hyperscale server shipments are expected to grow by 110 per cent, and enterprise workloads in the cloud will grow from about 20 per cent of total compute capacity to 40 per cent. Of course, Qualcomm wants a piece of that action.

Qualcomm announced its dream to enter the server processor market in November 2014, and today has been working on the technology for a couple of years or more. It has competitors in the ARM server-class space – particularly Cavium, AppliedMicro, and AMD. Calxeda collapsed because its ARM chips were too wimpy for businesses to use.

Normally, ARM-compatible processors are aimed at battery-powered or low-power gear – phones, fondleslabs, handheld games consoles, smartcard chips, embedded sensors and controllers, etc. Now another player has entered the data center game.

Qualcomm has put its arms, or should that be ARMs, around FPGA biz Xilinx and networking outfit Mellanox to get these ARM server processors into systems powering databases, image processing, AI, and so on. Mellanox will provide 10 to 100Gbps network controllers that plug into Qualcomm's chips so information can be shifted around server warehouses. Xilinx reckons ARM server CPUs and its programmable hardware can accelerate tasks in a way Intel x86 boxes can't.

Oh dear, we mentioned Intel. Intel has 99 per cent of the data center market: its x86 processors are the worker bees of the internet. And Intel owns Altera now, an FPGA rival to Xilinx.

With forthcoming Xeon D system-on-chips being Chipzilla's answer to emerging ARM-based servers, and Altera's hardware waiting in the wings to accelerate workloads, Qualcomm and its pals have a hell of a mountain to climb.

Reaction

"Like other suppliers in the nascent ARM server space, Qualcomm has kept mum about its future server chips and roadmaps," writes Timothy Prickett Morgan on our sister site, The Platform.

"But the revelation of a working pre-production version of an ARM server chip, and that it plans to come out next year with a beefier production chip that it says will compete against other ARM suppliers and the Xeon processors that currently rule the datacenter, is meant to show that Qualcomm is serious about getting into the datacenter."

Paul Teich, principal analyst at Tirias Research, told us he had expected more detail from Qualcomm on the chips. However, going public today with Xilinx and Mellanox showed confidence in Qual, he added – it would be a little embarrassing to fail after this.

"I liked the depth of commitment and the partnership," Teich said. "Qualcomm is working very closely with Mellanox and Xilinx; they can't walk away from that now. It helped defuse tensions surrounding the secrecy.

"Qualcomm tipped enough of its hand today; it's aiming at network-based apps, ones that need throughput. That's not at all surprising given Qualcomm's history. And there has to be acceleration somewhere in the solution from Qualcomm, whether it's from a GPU or an FPGA, or similar."

Teich reckons Qualcomm will be going up against Cavium and other ARM server CPU slingers, rather than solely Intel.

"It's interesting to have Mellanox onboard – Mellanox is one of the founding partners of OpenPower. Given the amount of investment from IBM in OpenPower, to see Mellanox working with Qualcomm speaks a depth of commitment," he noted. ®

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