Almost a year after announcing it was getting into the server chip business, Qualcomm is sampling its ARM-based processor with tier-one data centers.
The Oct. 8 announcement came at an event in San Francisco where Qualcomm executives demonstrated its Server Development Platform (SDP) using a pre-production version of a 24-core system-on-a-chip (SoC) that was built using the 64-bit ARMv8-A instruction set. The processor makes Qualcomm the latest vendor to move its ARM-based SoC technology up the ladder from smartphones and tablets and into the data center.
Other companies, such as Applied Micro, Cavium, Marvell Technologies, Broadcom and Advanced Micro Devices, either have products on the market or in their roadmaps in hopes of challenging Intel’s dominance in the data center with its broad range of x86-based processors.
“The release of our evaluation system is a major milestone for Qualcomm Technologies,” Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president said in a statement. “As data centers evolve to support the exponential growth and innovation in data, connectivity and cloud services, Qualcomm Technologies is creating an ecosystem to meet the needs of these next-generation data centers with Qualcomm-based server technologies.”
Qualcomm customers “are eager to test and evaluate our Server Development Platform and begin porting their software,” Chandrasekher said. “We are incorporating their feedback into our product offering with the goal of ensuring system and software readiness by the time we are in full production.”
For Qualcomm, the server market offers a possible growth market as it looks to expand beyond a mobile chip space that is becoming increasingly crowded. Still, company executives said breaking into the server market will require a long-term commitment.
“It’s going to take multiple years of significant investment before we see the kind of returns that are out there,” Qualcomm President Derek Aberle said during the event, according to Bloomberg. “We think we are one of the few companies that can step in and deliver.”
The company is aiming the SDP at hyperscale data center environments to run such workloads as big data, machine learning, infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) and platform-as-a-service (PaaS). Qualcomm engineers have been working on the product for two years, though it was only in November 2014 that CEO Steve Mollenkopf announced Qualcomm’s plans to get into the server space.
The SDP will be the first on what officials said is a roadmap of production single-chip server SoCs that will feature a fully custom core built using FinFET technology for high performance and power efficiency. The goal is to be among the most advanced server-class SoCs on the market, according to executives. They reportedly declined to say when a product will be commercially available.
Qualcomm executives also announced partnerships with Xilinx and Mellanox Technologies to bring more capabilities to the SoC. Qualcomm will use Xilinx’s field-programmable gate arrays (FGPAs) with the server chip to give customers greater flexibility, performance and performance-per-watt and to drive down costs. FPGAs can be programmed through software and are becoming increasingly important accelerators for cloud and Web-scale environments by improving performance and holding down power consumption.
Intel in June announced it was buying FPGA maker Altera for $16.7 billion in an effort to boost its efforts in everything from the data center to the Internet of things.
“Xilinx’s strengths in highly programmable workload acceleration, connectivity, and system-on-chip technologies will complement Qualcomm Technologies’ leading processor solutions for the next generation of heterogeneous computing,” Chandrasekher said.
Qualcomm Sampling ARM-Based Server Chip With Businesses
Mellanox will bring Ethernet and InfiniBand interconnect technologies to the SoC to optimize it for scalable server and storage infrastructures.
The demonstration Qualcomm ran in San Francisco featured the SDP running Linux kernel version 4.2, KVM virtualization, OpenStack DevStack for OpenStack cloud orchestration, and guest virtual machines, which were running a standard Linux distribution as well as Apache Web server and WordPress.
The trend toward cloud computing is driving interest in low-power processor platforms, which ARM and its chip-making partners are looking to address. Hewlett-Packard is offering some of its low-power Moonshot systems with ARM-based SoCs, and Dell can build ARM-based systems when requested. Supercomputer maker Cray and Lenovo also are looking at ARM-based chips for some systems. Some Web-scale vendors, including PayPal and Chinese search engine Baidu, are testing ARM-based systems for their environments.
In addition, major Web companies such as Google and Facebook—which build their own highly efficient systems that run open-source software like Linux—are willing to try data center technologies that are not made by top-tier vendors like Intel and Cisco. The 35-member Linaro group was launched in 2010 to help build a software ecosystem to support Linux-based systems running on ARM processors.
Still, ARM and the chip makers face a formidable rival in Intel’s Data Center Group, which generated $3.85 billion in revenue in the second quarter and is driving performance and power efficiency improvements in its x86-based Xeon and Atom chips.