AMD, ARM Set Stage for Competition With Intel in Servers

AMD will design ARM-based server chips, while ARM unveils new 64-bit chips and Linaro creates a project to create Linux-based software for ARM servers.

Intel's looming competition with ARM in low-power servers came into clearer focus this week.

Most significant was the announcement by executives with Advanced Micro Devices, Intel's traditional rival in x86-based processors, that the company will begin making 64-bit ARM chips, as well. AMD will marry the low-power chip designs with the interconnect fabric the company acquired earlier this year when it bought microserver maker SeaMicro, creating chips for dense servers running in hyperscale data center environments.

In addition, ARM, at its TechCon developer conference, unveiled the Cortex-A50 processor series of server chips, based on its ARMv8 architecture. The 64-bit systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) are aimed at a wide range of markets, from smartphones to servers, according to ARM officials.

"The ARM ecosystem will continue its rate of unprecedented innovation to enable diverse platforms," Simon Segars, executive vice president of ARM's processor and physical IP divisions, said in a statement. "This will deliver an era of transformational computing, from mobile through the infrastructure and servers that support consumers' connected, mobile lifestyles."

In addition, Linaro, an independent engineering group that develops open-source software for the ARM architecture, announced the Linaro Enterprise Group, which aims to create Linux software for ARM-based servers. Joining the group are such high-profile tech companies as AMD, Facebook, Hewlett-Packard and Red Hat. Also among the members are AppliedMicro, Calxeda, Canonical, Cavium and Marvell Technologies. Linaro, which also counts ARM, Samsung, ST-Ericsson and HiSilicon as members, made its announcement at ARM's TechCon event.

Also at TechCon, Applied Micro demonstrated several open-source applications running on X-Gene SoC based on the 64-bit ARMv8 architecture.

"Our activities today highlight the significant progress that is being made in building out the ARM 64-bit ecosystem, a process that is on-track to perfectly intersect with the availability of our X-Gene silicon," AppliedMicro President and CEO Paramesh Gopi said in a statement. "We see strong pull from data center and enterprise administrators who require lower power, higher densities and lower total cost of ownership."

ARM and its partners see a growing demand for high-performance, low-power servers in hyperscale data center environments. Web-based companies like Facebook, Google and Microsoft are running massive, dense data centers designed to run huge numbers of smaller workloads, and need highly energy-efficient servers that can handle those workloads. ARM sees an opportunity in these microservers to chip away at some of Intel's dominance in the server market.

With its ARMv8 architecture, ARM is including features critical to servers, including 64-bit capabilities, more memory and greater support for virtualization. ARM expects ARMv8-based chips to begin appearing in systems by late 2013 and into 2014.

Top-tier system makers are embracing the idea of low-power ARM-based servers. Hewlett-Packard is partnering with Calxeda to develop such ultra-low-power servers as part of its larger Project Moonshot, while Dell is working with Calxeda and Marvell Technologies on ARM-based servers in its Copper and Zinc initiatives. At TechCon, Dell also showed off a prototype powered by AppliedMicro chips.

The importance of such projects as Linaro's is in developing the software ecosystem for ARM-based servers.

However, Intel also is pushing its low-power server initiatives, focusing on its Atom platform. The giant chip maker is taking a different tack than AMD, pushing the x86 architecture as the best one for microservers, noting the long history of x86 in servers and the architecture's support of legacy software. HP officials, while getting a lot of attention for their embrace of Calxeda's ARM chips, in June opted for Intel's Atom-based Centerton SoCs for its Gemini microservers, the first systems coming out of Project Moonshot.