Qualcomm readying new Arm server chip based on Nuvia acquisition

AWS said to be taking an interest in homegrown silicon, meaning chipmaker must have a functional demo

Chipmaker Qualcomm is said to be preparing to re-enter the Arm server market, based on technology the company gained from its acquisition of startup Nuvia last year.

Qualcomm is reportedly seeking customers for a product that has resulted from its takeover of chip startup Nuvia early in 2021, according to Bloomberg, which cites the usual anonymous sources familiar with the matter.

Nuvia was an Arm processor startup established in 2019 by ex-Apple chip designer Gerard Williams, along with a handful of other notable CPU engineers from other companies, as detailed by The Register at the time.

Nuvia's focus was on developing Arm-based datacenter chips, but the story surrounding Qualcomm's acquisition was that it wanted the Nuvia team to bolster its own Arm processor expertise so that it could potentially design its own cores for its SnapDragon smartphone chips rather than using designs provided by Arm.

Qualcomm famously abandoned its previous Arm-based server processor project back in 2018, halting development of its 48-core datacenter-focused Centriq 2400, after the company was forced to cut costs following mishaps including a hostile takeover attempt from Broadcom and Qualcomm's own acquisition of NXP falling through.

The company wasn't the only one to get burned fingers from trying to get into the Arm server space, with Broadcom ditching its own server chip project, and AMD deciding to focus its server development efforts on the Zen x86 processor cores despite actually bringing the Opteron A1100 series of Arm server chips to market in 2016.

Things have changed, and the hyperscale and cloud companies have started to show a renewed interest in Arm server chips because of their greater power efficiency compared with other server chips.

A fresh wave of Arm server processors, spearheaded by Ampere Computing and its CEO, former Intel president Renee James, has been making some progress. Microsoft's Azure is hosting virtual machines running on Ampere Altra chips, and Google introduced its first Arm-based instances based on Ampere Altra last month. HPE also announced Arm-based ProLiant datacenter servers at its Discover 2022 conference in June.

According to Bloomberg's sources, AWS has shown an interest in Qualcomm's latest offering, implying that the chipmaker already has working silicon to at least demonstrate to potential customers. AWS already offers server instances using its own Graviton Arm-based chips.

We asked Qualcomm to confirm whether it is preparing an Arm-based datacenter chip, but the company was not immediately available to respond.

Earlier this year, Qualcomm expressed its interest in being part of a consortium of chipmakers that could join forces and buy Arm from its owner SoftBank, rather than the chip designer being floated on the stock market. Others, including Korean chipmaker SK hynix and Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger, also expressed an interest in joining any such consortium.

In comments to investors on an earnings call reporting its results for Q2 ended March, CEO Cristiano Amon said: "We're encouraged by the broad interest in our upcoming products, utilizing our industry-leading CPUs designed by our NUVIA team. We continue to drive the inevitable transition to ARM-based computing while redefining the future of mobile productivity."

He later added on the same call: "As we think about the next generation, we have been developing our own CPU that's been designed by the NUVIA team. And we are going after the performance tier for focus about high scale in the enterprise. And development is on track, and we expect to have that in late 2023." ®

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