Qualcomm closes acquisition of chip designer Nuvia: First custom cores to launch next year

2022 Snapdragon chipset aimed at high-performance ultraportables


Qualcomm said today that its new internally designed CPUs are expected to sample in the second half of 2022 as it completed the purchase of chip designer Nuvia.

Bought for $1.4bn, the Arm data-centre chip design business launched in 2019 and swiftly raised a $53m Series A round from a bevy of investors that included Dell Technologies Capital and Mayfield. Nuvia's second $240m Series B round followed the next year.

Founded by former Apple Arm chip designer Gerard Williams, ex-Google (and Apple) system-on-chip architect Manu Gulati, and AMD architect John Bruno, the engineer behind the first IGP chipsets, the startup was initially aimed at creating custom ARM-based cores for server applications. Prior to its acquisition, the firm was working on two products: a Phoenix CPU core, and a separate SoC product called Orion. Both were made using a clean-sheet design.

Qualcomm, obviously, isn’t too active in the server space. Its bread-and-butter has long been the trifecta of personal computing devices: phones, tablets, and, increasingly, PCs.

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Qualcomm pays $1.4bn to acquire ex-Apple and AMD Arm server chip engineers (and the biz they set up)

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But Qualcomm’s chips rely on core designs made by Arm. By acquiring Nuvia, Qualcomm can potentially bring its core designs in-house, thereby lowering licensing and royalty costs. Also, more importantly, Qualcomm would get access to some of the talent that allowed Apple to produce its gravity-defying Apple Silicon chips, which are said to offer solid performance with a lower energy consumption and thermal output when compared to competing processors.

Along with the three high-profile founders, whom Qualcomm pointed out had "collectively driven system engineering and silicon design for more than 20 chips", Nuvia company brains also included Red Hat chief Arm architect Jon Masters, who went back to Red Hat late last year.

Qualcomm said it plans to use its own custom cores across the entire product portfolio, starting with a Snapdragon chipset aimed at high-performance ultraportable laptops. The company plans to start sampling this yet-unnamed chip in the second half of 2022.

“The world-class Nuvia team enhances our CPU roadmap, extending Qualcomm’s leading technology position with the Windows, Android and Chrome ecosystems,” said Cristiano Amon, president and CEO-elect of Qualcomm, in a statement.

“The broad support of this acquisition from across industries validates the opportunity we have to provide differentiated products with leading CPU performance and power efficiency, as on-demand computing increases in the 5G era,” he added.

Phoenix rising

Although Nuvia had yet to bring a product to market by the time of the acquisition, it nonetheless garnered the interest of the industry for the bold claims it made regarding its Phoenix CPU cores, which purportedly trounced competing silicon in artificial benchmarks.

Last August, the company published stats showing Phoenix eclipsing the Apple A12Z, Intel i7-1068NG7, AMD Ryzen 4700U Zen 2, and Qualcomm Snapdragon S865 in single-core performance-per-watt, in some cases outperforming by a factor of two.

This test attracted criticism in some quarters for its use of the Geekbench 5 test, which is commonly used for contrasting consumer PC and mobile products, rather than one that would be more applicable to a server environment, such as the SPEC CPU2006 and CPU2017. Others were eager to note that Nuvia's Phoenix was an unreleased chip, and thus third parties were unable to independently peer-review its findings.

Separately, Williams, the Nuvia co-founder who previously worked at Apple as a lead chip architect, is currently being sued by Apple over allegations he breached an intellectual property agreement and a "duty of loyalty" to the company, while allegedly planning to creae Nuvia when still on the company's payroll. This legal battle is ongoing. ®

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