Cavium Intros ThunderX ARM Server Chips at Computex

The company's SoCs, which will begin sampling in the fourth quarter, will offer up to 48 cores and be optimized for particular workloads.

server chips

Cavium later this year will enter the increasingly crowded ARM server chip space with its upcoming ThunderX family of products that will offer up to 48 cores per chip and be optimized for a variety of workloads.

Cavium officials unveiled ThunderX June 3 at the Computex 2014 show in Taiwan, saying the company not only is looking to compete against other vendors that want to leverage the ARM architecture in the data center, but also wants to challenge Intel's dominance in the server processor space.

The bulk of chip makers looking to build systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) based on ARM's ARMv8-A 64-bit architecture see an opportunity in the low-power microserver space, in systems designed to process massive numbers of small workloads found in Web 2.0 environments. Intel also is competing in that space with its energy-efficient x86 Atom platform—it already is on its second generation, and is planning the release of its 14nm "Denverton" SoC later this year.

However, Cavium officials said their upcoming offerings—which include custom chips based on ARM, up to 48 cores and the ability to efficiently fit into two-socket environments—will make ThunderX an option in the traditional data center space, competing against Intel's Xeon E3 and E5 families.

"Most [businesses] are looking for a second vendor to Intel," Gopal Hegde, vice president and general manager of Cavium's Server Processor Group, told eWEEK. "We need to offer them a choice."

Intel has long been the dominant chip supplier for servers, owning more than 80 percent of the market. However, trends like cloud computing, big data, mobility and social media are changing the demands being put on server makers by businesses that increasingly are valuing energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness over raw performance. They also are looking for systems that are more highly optimized for specific workloads.

ARM and partners such as Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro and Marvell Technologies are making inroads with server OEMs like Hewlett-Packard and Dell, which are developing systems aimed at hyperscale data center environments that run on ARM processors. Like their Cavium counterparts, officials with Applied Micro, which is developing its X-Gene 64-bit ARM server SoC product line, also have said they want their products to be alternatives to Intel's mainstream server chips.

"We wanted to build a Xeon-class ARM" chip, Applied Micro President and CEO Paramesh Gopi told eWEEK last year.

Cavium's Hegde said the company is looking to build out a family of ARM SoCs that offer high-performance capabilities—the cores will run at up to 2.5GHz—are optimized for workloads in such areas as compute, storage, security and networking, and can meet the rapidly changing demands brought on by such trends as the cloud, software-defined networking (SDN) and software-defined storage (SDS).

The workload optimization capabilities will be a key feature for the Cavium chips, Hegde said. Like other ARM partners, Hegde argued that the days of a single architecture that offers a small range of choices in the data center are disappearing, and that organizations are looking for systems optimized for their workloads. Intel officials also are heeding that demand. When the company launched the Xeon E7 v2 family, the lineup came with 20 different configurations that offer variations on everything from core count to frequency to memory caches so they could be optimized for particular workloads.