Samsung, Intel May Be on Course for Server Chip Rivalry

Samsung has hired several ex-AMD officials who have deep server chip expertise, fueling speculation that it is gearing up to compete with Intel in the market.

Samsung Electronics appears to be prepping to make a push into the server processor market, taking on x86-based chip makers Intel and Advanced Micro Devices with its ARM-designed products.

Samsung over the last couple of years has added a number of executives and engineers with server processor experience to its research and development facility in Austin, Texas. Its latest addition appears to be Pat Patla, a former vice president and general manager of AMD€™s Opteron server chip business who left that company last week and is now a vice president at Samsung, according to his LinkedIn profile.

That follows several other hires over the last couple of years of former AMD officials who now work for Samsung€™s Austin facility, fueling speculation that Samsung€”traditionally the world's second-largest semiconductor maker behind Intel€”is gearing up to take a run at Intel and its server chip dominance.

€œIt wouldn€™t surprise me,€ Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT Research, told eWEEK. €œIt sounds like some of the hires they€™ve made are all deeply versed in server technology.€

King also noted that some of these hires also have strong system-on-a-chip (SoC) expertise, so Samsung€™s motives €œmight not be exclusively server-oriented. But it€™s an indication that they€™re at least investigating [a server chip push].€

Such an effort should be expected. ARM Holdings executives have been vocal about their intention to create chip designs with the features needed for servers, including 64-bit support. In October 2011, ARM introduced its ARMv8 architecture, which includes 64-bit capabilities. However, officials said it could be 2014 before ARM-based systems hit the market.

AppliedMicro made a splash around the same time, announcing 64-bit-capable prototype chips based on ARMv8, and such vendors as Marvell Technology and Calxeda said they were working on 32-bit ARM chips that would be compatible with ARMv8.

King said that having a heavyweight like Samsung pursuing ARM-based server chips would validate the efforts being made by ARM and other manufacturers.

Keith Hawkins, who had been with AMD for more than 15 years before spending one year with Sun Microsystems, has been vice president of design at Samsung€™s Austin facility for two years. On his LinkedIn profile, Hawkins wrote that Samsung is €œcontinuing to expand in most design areas especially the front-end space for System, SoC and CPU architecture, verification and performance modeling. We now have our lead CPU and System Architects in place as well as our verification and performance leads. We are about to kick it in high gear with our newest design program.€

In June 2011, Samsung also hired Jim Mergard after he spent 16 years with AMD. Two months later, the company hired Brad Burgess, who had worked at AMD for eight years and Intel for three years before that.

Intel executives have been somewhat dismissive about the idea of ARM-based chips gaining much traction in the server market, arguing that the chips lack key features€”including performance, 64-bit capabilities and software support€”necessary in the server market. In addition, Intel and AMD both have been pushing to drive up both the performance and energy efficiency of their own server processors.

However, analysts said that with the rise of cloud computing and Web 2.0 companies like Facebook and Google€”with their massive data centers processing high numbers of relatively small workloads€”there is a growing market for low-power, high-performing servers, and that ARM designs, which dominate the mobile computing space in smartphones and tablets, could find their way into such microservers.

€œFor many applications that are more power-sensitive than performance-sensitive, ARM is going to have a real opportunity,€ Nathan Brookwood, an analyst with Insight 64, said in an interview with eWEEK.

That opportunity also is getting the attention of some major systems makers. Hewlett-Packard in November 2011 announced its €œProject Moonshot,€ an effort to create extremely low-power servers to run very large cloud and Web 2.0 data centers, where cooling and power costs are key concerns. As part of the initiative, HP is working with Calxeda to create systems powered by ARM-based chips.

In addition, Dell officials have said they are keeping an eye on the developments, and routinely run test systems powered by non-x86 chips, including ARM processors. However, Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of Dell€™s Data Center Solutions group, in an interview with eWEEK last year questioned whether ARM€™s opportunity to make a mark in the server space is dwindling, saying the move is taking longer than he expected, particularly in the area of software support. Still, Norrod said, €œThe ecosystem is not quite there yet. But it€™s not insurmountable.€

Insight 64€™s Brookwood said 64-bit capabilities will be important for ARM chips, but noted that many cloud computing deployments use Linux-based applications, so software support for Windows is not as important in that arena. €œIt€™s much less of a big deal here than it is in more traditional€ data centers, he said. Instead, metrics such as power-per-watt€”where ARM has a significant advantage over x86 chips€”are crucial in cloud and Web 2.0 environments.

So is server density, where SoCs with built-in fabrics will be important. AMD made a step in that direction with its acquisition in February of SeaMicro, which was making ultra-dense servers that included Intel chips and its own fabric technology. AMD will be able to leverage the SeaMicro products immediately, but it will take time for the company to tightly integrate AMD products with SeaMicro€™s technology, Brookwood said.

Intel is a little farther behind, though, he said.

Diane Bryant, vice president and general manager of Intel€™s Datacenter and Connected Systems Group, said after the announcement of AMD€™s SeaMicro deal that Intel has €œa very robust and compelling road map for this [microserver] market, and we partner with Dell, Supermicro, NEC and Hitachi with others to be announced soon. We€™ve been also collaborating extensively with HP on low-power servers and scale-out software research.€

However, Brookwood noted that Intel has not been clear about its own fabric plans, and it could take a while€”even for such a well-funded and well-staffed company like Intel€”to develop its own chip fabric.