AMD Finally Gets ARM-Based Server Chip to Market

The chip maker launches its delayed Opteron A1100 SoC into a data center market that officials say is now more ready for ARM-based processors.

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Advanced Micro Devices is giving its resurgent data center ambitions a boost with the official launch of the vendor's long-awaited ARM-based chip aimed at servers, storage devices and networking equipment.

The company had been producing the Opteron A1100 systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) for a couple of months, but on Jan. 14, executives announced that that processor family was shipping in volume. Now the questions will focus on how ready the market is for ARM-based data center processors, despite several years of hype and development around the chip and the surrounding ecosystem.

ARM executives and many of its chip-making partners for years have been talking about bringing the low-power architecture to the data center and offering an alternative to Intel, which controls more than 95 percent of the market. Vendor officials and industry analysts have said that businesses are looking for options for a range of reasons, from accelerating innovation and offering protection against supply issues to driving down prices.

In addition, ARM and its chip partners aren't the only companies looking to provide alternatives to Intel. IBM's OpenPower Foundation also wants to offer options to vendors. Another challenge will be Intel itself, which has worked to drive up performance and reduce power consumption in its server chips, and offers low-power Atom SoCs for systems. In addition, the company last year launched its first Xeon SoC aimed at hyperscale data centers.

However, the demand for Intel alternatives is there, and it's that demand that will help ARM chip away at Intel's dominant market share, according to Scott Aylor, corporate vice president and general manager of AMD's Enterprise Solutions unit. The Operton A1100 "is about bringing ARM to the data center, but it's also about bringing choice to the data center," Aylor told eWEEK. "The industry is really hungry for choice."

AMD wants to be the company that drives that choice. The company, which has spent most of its life in the large shadow of Intel, is making an aggressive push into the data center as part of a larger strategy to regain its financial footing and return to sustainable profitability. A key part of that effort is giving OEMs and customers a broad range of options, including choices of x86- or ARM-based processors that offer a broad range of capabilities in everything from graphics to connectivity.

"It's really about having the right product for the right workload," Aylor said.

The market for ARM-based data center chips is still a nascent one. A few companies, such as Applied Micro and Cavium, already have ARM processors on the market, and have gotten some traction in networking and storage equipment. Other vendors, including Qualcomm and Broadcom, also are developing ARM-based data center chips. In addition, Applied Micro's X-Gene SoC—the company unveiled the third generation of the chip in November 2015—also is being used in one of Hewlett Packard Enterprise's (HPE's) Moonshot sever modules.

However, other major server vendors are still taking a wait-and-see approach. Dell has ARM-based systems that can be put together when requested, and Lenovo is testing such servers. At ARM's TechCon 2015 show last year, other vendors—including Penguin Computing and Gigabyte—announced systems powered by Cavium's ThunderX SoCs, and Lakshmi Mandyam, director of server systems and ecosystems at ARM, cautioned against making assumptions based on what is known publicly, suggesting there is a lot going on behind the scenes.

"I'm comfortable with where we are at this point," Mandyam told journalists and analysts at TechCon. "There are a lot of proofs-of-concept going on with ARM."