ARM Server Chips Forcing Intel to Defend Market It's Long Dominated

NEWS ANALYSIS: ARM-based servers may not hit the market for a while, but the chip designer's influence on server processors is being felt at Intel and elsewhere.

Intel executives in July 2013 announced that the giant chip maker planned to release a system-on-a-chip version of its upcoming 14-nanometer Xeon "Broadwell" server processor, which will include such integrated features as fabric, I/O and accelerators.

Intel already offers systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) in its low-power Atom platform for mobile devices, a market dominated by ARM-based SoCs from a variety of chip manufacturing partners, including Qualcomm and Samsung. At the same time, Intel is already in the second generation of its Atom SoCs for low-end, highly dense microserver space, the C2000 "Avoton." The company will follow up next year with the 14nm "Denverton" chip.

However, the Broadwell offering will be the first time Intel has brought the SoC design to mainstream data center systems, including servers, storage devices and networking hardware.

To Patrick Moorhead, it's a clear indication of the influence ARM has had in chip and server designs since company officials announced more than four years ago their intent to take ARM's low-power designs into the data center, challenging Intel's dominance in the space.

"What ARM has brought to the table is the SoC," Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy, told eWEEK, pointing to Intel's upcoming Broadwell SoC. "That's one of the things I don't think would have happened if [ARM] hadn't been there."

ARM's push into the server space probably accelerated Intel's road map, according to Jeff Underhill, director of server programs at ARM.

"The incumbents may have ultimately come down this [SoC] road eventually, but they probably came down faster than they would have" because of ARM, Underhill told eWEEK.

ARM executives for several years have been vocal about their intention of bringing the company's low-power architecture—which is found in the bulk of SoCs running smartphones and tablets—and moving into data centers, which are undergoing a significant transition due to such trends as mobility, cloud computing and big data.

Much of the talk around ARM has focused on microservers, highly dense systems that are designed to process the massive numbers of small workloads for cloud service providers and Web 2.0 companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon, where power efficiency is as important as performance. However, some ARM chip manufactures, including Applied Micro and Cavium, are touting their 64-bit ARM chips as competitors to Intel's mainstream Xeon server processors. In addition, as demonstrated at the recent International Supercomputing Conference in Germany, there is also a push to get ARM's architecture into the high-performance computing (HPC) space.

However, despite the bravado from ARM and its manufacturing partners, there are few, if any, actual ARM-based servers on the market. ARM only relatively recently got its new 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture to partners, and most systems are still in the demonstration phase. Commercial systems aren't expected to start hitting the market until later in the year, and it won't be until at least 2015 when they begin to make a dent in the space.

"The impact of ARM in the server market is undetermined right now," Tom Bradicich, vice president for engineering for servers at Hewlett-Packard, told eWEEK. "The enterprise capabilities of ARM are unknown."

That said, Bradicich and other vendors and analysts agreed that ARM's entrance into the market is having a ripple effect, from driving such chip design features as SoCs and fabrics to fueling new system designs from the likes of HP and Dell. It's also looking to answer the growing demand from end users for greater performance and power efficiency in their systems.

"That combination is an extremely potent combination for the server market," Bradicich said.