Amazon Engineer Says ARM Chips Lag Intel in Innovation

AWS Distinguished Engineer James Hamilton says Intel is outpacing ARM chip makers in processor development.


Chip makers that leverage ARM's architecture are falling behind Intel's rate of innovation of processors for servers, according to an executive with Amazon Web Services.

In an interview with Bloomberg News Nov. 12 after giving a presentation at the AWS re:Invent 2014 show in Las Vegas, James Hamilton, vice president and distinguished engineer for AWS, said the development of ARM-based chips for data center servers wasn't progressing fast enough to convince officials with the giant public cloud to consider using them over Intel processors.

Officials with ARM and its chip-making partners, such as Applied Micro, Marvell Technologies and Advanced Micro Devices, have argued that in data center environments like Amazon's, where density and power efficiency are crucial, ARM's low-power architecture could offer advantages over Intel's larger, more power hungry and costlier x86-based chips.

However, right now it still makes more financial sense to stick with Intel—which owns more than 95 percent of the server processor market—to go with ARM-based systems-on-a-chip (SoCs), Hamilton said. He also noted Intel's willingness to work with Amazon in developing custom processors to address needs particular to the company.

"Any time I work out the cost models, it's not quite there," Hamilton told Bloomberg, referring to the idea of replacing Intel processors with ARM-based SoCs. "Right now, Intel is more receptive than ARM. I’m ready to meet with them every darn day."

However, he did say that Amazon—which operates dozens of data centers around the world—was still open to working with ARM chip manufacturers in the future.

An ARM spokesman declined to comment on the report.

Large, Web-scale businesses like Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft run huge data centers all over the world, populated by massive numbers of servers that are tasked with running large amounts of small tasks. Power efficiency and cost are as important as performance when deciding what components to use in these servers, many of which are built by the companies themselves.

ARM officials for years have been talking about such companies being natural fits for their company's low-power architecture, which is found in most smartphones and tablets around the world. The ARM architecture offers organizations a low-power and less costly alternative to Intel, they argue. Applied Micro, AMD, Cavium and others are adopting ARM's 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture for server SoCs and are working with ARM and others—including the Linaro consortium—to build out a software ecosystem around ARM in the data center.

Hewlett-Packard in September launched the first of its low-power ProLiant Moonshot servers to run on ARM-based SoCs, in this case the eight-core X-Gene from Applied Micro. HP officials have promised other ARM-based systems in the future. Dell also has run ARM-based systems in their labs and officials have said they will sell them to customers that ask for them.

However, ARM officials have said that now that 64-bit ARM server chips are in production, it will take a couple of years for the market around them to ramp up.

Intel has not stood still during this time. Over the past several years, the chip maker has been growing the performance and driving down the power consumption of its Xeon processors while positioning its Atom platform for low-power servers.

Intel already has released two generations of Atom server chips—which were the first processors to be used in HP's Moonshot portfolio—and will come out with its 14-nanometer "Denverton" SoC next year.