Qualcomm, the world’s largest vendor of mobile processors, is now challenging rival Intel in the rapidly changing data center market. The company is now selling its long-awaited Centriq 2400 Arm-based server processor that is aimed at the fast-growing cloud market and that Qualcomm officials say beats Intel in such crucial areas as power efficiency and cost.
Officials from Arm and its manufacturing partners have for several years talked about pushing the Arm architecture into the data center as an alternative to Intel, and some manufacturers like Cavium and Applied Micro in recent years have rolled out systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) based on the 64-bit Armv8-A design. However, Qualcomm represents the most significant Arm chip maker in terms of scale and resources to challenge Intel, which holds more than 90 percent of the global server chip market.
The data center is undergoing dramatic changes due to the rise of public and private cloud infrastructures and the emergence of such modern workloads as data analytics, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), network virtualization, and video imaging and acceleration. In addition, hyperscalers such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook are increasingly driving the market for servers and are more open to new technologies than traditional enterprises.
In addition, silicon development is being driven more now from the mobile side of the field than the PC side, giving Qualcomm the opportunity to be a leader in driving innovation, according to Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm’s data center business.
In a Q&A on the Qualcomm site, Chandrasekher said Qualcomm is targeting Centriq 2400 at cloud companies, which “develop and maintain their own software, are inclined to take advantage of new technologies, and can optimize these technologies for their environments very quickly. This creates an opportunity for us because we can offer something valuable and potentially grab a reasonably sized piece of the growth in cloud.”
He added that Qualcomm is “targeting the server CPU portion [of the data center] first because our SoC design capabilities and access to the leading-edge process manufacturing node put us in a strong position to go after this significant industry opportunity. There’s an incumbent in this industry, but we feel that customers are very open to an alternative like ours that brings a tremendous amount of innovation they can take advantage of. Additionally, our customers are looking for diversity in their supplier base.”
Centriq comes as Qualcomm executives look to expand the company’s reach beyond mobile devices and into such areas as PCs and, through its proposed $38 billion bid for semiconductor maker NXP, autonomous vehicles. It also comes as a lot of other forces swirl around the company, from its long-running legal dispute with Apple to an unsolicited bid by Broadcom this week to buy Qualcomm for more than $100 billion.
The launch also came the same day that CEO Steve Mollenkopf, as part of the trade delegation accompanying President Trump to China, announced that Qualcomm had signed deals with three Chinese companies—Xiaomi, Vivo and Guangdong—totaling more than $12 billion over three years.
Qualcomm’s Centriq chips offer up to 48 single-threaded cores running up to 2.6GHz and are manufactured on Samsung’s 10-nanometer FinFET process. The processors sport a bidirectional segmented ring bus with as much as 250G bps of aggregate bandwidth to avoid performance bottlenecks, 512KB of shared L2 cache for every two cores and 60MB of unified L3 cache. There also are six channels of DDR4 memory and support for up to 768GB of total DRAM with 32 PCIe Gen 3 lanes and six PCIe controllers. They also support Arm’s TrustZone security technology and hypervisors for virtualization.
According to Qualcomm officials, the 48-core Centriq 2460, priced at $1,995, offers more than four times the performance per dollar and 45 percent better performance per watt than Intel’s high-end Xeon Platinum 818 “Skylake” chip.
Analysts have argued that system vendors and data center operators want to see a competitive alternative to Intel to help drive innovation, keep prices down and protect them from supply chain issues. Arm officials have said their energy-efficient designs offer such an alternative.
However, in the years that Arm has been building out its data center efforts, Intel also has been driving down the power consumption of its chips while improving performance and adding capabilities like field-programmable gate array (FPGA) accelerators. In addition, a reinvigorated Advanced Micro Devices has come out with its EPYC chips based on the company’s Zen architecture, giving customers an option to Intel that uses the x86 architecture, which would eliminate the need for end users to modify code to run on a new architecture, like Arm.
Still, Arm is getting some traction. OEMs like Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Dell EMC, Lenovo and Cray all have Arm-based systems for sale or are working on them. Microsoft officials in March said the company would start using Arm-based chips in servers in its Azure cloud, and Fujitsu said it will use Arm-based processors in the next generation of its K supercomputer.
Among the companies at the Nov. 8 launch event in San Jose, Calif., for Centriq were OEMs like HPE; cloud companies like Microsoft, LinkedIn and Alibaba; and software makers like Red Hat.