Amazon Jumps Into the Computer Chip Business

The company's Annapurna Labs is making ARM-based processors for such systems as home gateways, WiFi routers and NAS devices.

Amazon chips

Amazon is getting into the computer chip business through its Annapurna Labs subsidiary that it bought last year.

Annapurna officials this week announced that the company is offering a line of systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) and associated technologies that system makers and service providers can use in such devices as home gateways, WiFi routers and network-attached storage (NAS) devices for everything from video streaming and secure storage to application virtualization and the Internet of things (IoT).

Annapurna's Alpine processors are based on ARM's 32-bit ARMv7 and 64-bit ARMv8 architectures, making the company the latest ARM-based chip vendor to challenge Intel's dominant position in the data center. However, the Alpine SoCs—at least for now—have specific targets of devices and systems for the connected home and for delivering in-home services to consumers, and aren't aimed at the data center systems that are central to Intel's data center business.

Amazon, with its booming Web services business, is among a handful of hyperscale data center operators that also include such companies as Google and Facebook. Like those other companies, Amazon has looked for ways to tweak the hardware running in its massive facilities to make it run faster and more efficiently. Last year, the company bought Annapurna Labs, which was founded in Israel in 2011 with the goal of creating SoCs and subsystems for networking, storage and security applications. Until now, there had been little discussion about what Annapurna would do for Amazon.

Annapurna officials said that a number of tech vendors already are using the company's chip technology, including Asus, Netgear, Synology and QNAP Systems. Now Annapurna will make its offerings more widely available to other OEMs and service providers. The company also offers a hardware development kit to help accelerate the creation of Alpine-based products.

The officials said the Alpine chips enable users to more quickly spin out new services for customers because they do not have the same lack of network and compute resources as more general-purpose processors that rely more on hardware acceleration and software optimization.

Instead, the Alpine SoCs provide a broad range of capabilities, including offering up to four cores of high-performance, general-purpose compute as well as advanced storage interfaces, PCIe Gen 3 and multimode Ethernet connectivity of up to 10Gb. There also are other features, including DDR4 memory and 2MB of Layer 2 cache.

Through these features, systems based on the Alpine chips support a wide array of workloads, from storage and multimedia IoT management to cloud connectivity, and the enterprise-class features allow for products to meet performance demands without the hardware acceleration or software optimization, according to officials.

"To stay competitive, OEMs and service providers … need to quickly add support for the new features that give consumers the ability to enjoy the latest applications without changing hardware or waiting for months to get updated software," Annapurna Vice President Gary Szilagyi said in a statement. "Our Alpine platform-on-chip and subsystems product line gives service providers and OEMs a high-performance platform on which they can design hardware that will support growing consumer demands for innovative services, fast connectivity, and many connected devices."

Low-power ARM-based processors from the likes of Qualcomm and Samsung are found in the bulk of smartphones and tablets on the market today, and are gaining traction in such devices as networking appliances and embedded systems. In addition, ARM officials over the past several years have been looking to push the architecture into the data center and grab some of Intel's market share, which sits at more than 98 percent.

Several vendors, including Applied Micro and Cavium, have ARM-based server chips on the market now, and others—such as Advanced Micro Devices—will be pushing their own SoCs as well. However, how well ARM server chips are embraced by data centers and services providers remains to be seen. Industry analysts have said businesses want a second source of silicon to not only run particular workloads but also in hopes of driving down Intel prices and protecting themselves in case of supply chain issues.

That said, there are a number of other players vying to be the alternative source to Intel, from AMD and its renewed push into the data center with its x86 server chips to IBM's OpenPower Foundation.