Qualcomm, the world’s top mobile chip maker, is ready to get into the crowded ARM-based server chip business.
At the company’s annual analyst day Nov. 19 in New York, CEO Steve Mollenkopf said company engineers have been working on the technology “for some time. Now we are going to have a big product that goes into the server.”
The Wall Street Journal was the first to report on Qualcomm’s move.
Mollenkopf was short on details—there was no talk about timetables or technological insights—but the entrance of such a large and well-funded player is sure to send ripples throughout the still-evolving ARM server chip space and introduce a significant competitor to Intel, which owns more than 90 percent of the server chip market.
“You’ve got a really huge company with a lot of cash … that wasn’t in there before,” Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy, told eWEEK. “It would be really, really hard to push Qualcomm out in some way.”
The ARM server market is still in its early stages. Chip makers like Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro and Cavium are beginning to roll out systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) based on ARM’s 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture, and ARM officials expect servers powered by ARM chips to gain momentum over the next few years. Hewlett-Packard has already announced a low-power Moonshot server powered by Applied Micro’s X-Gene SoC.
However, other chip makers—in particular, Samsung and Nvidia—had reportedly backed off from the idea, and one of the early pioneers, Calxeda, shut its doors late last year after running out of money.
That said, the trend toward cloud computing is fueling interest in low-power processor platforms. Cloud infrastructures demand high-performance servers that are small and highly energy-efficient, making power consumption as important a metric as compute capabilities. Intel has been aggressive in driving down the energy usage of its x86-based Xeon and Atom chips, while ARM and its partners are looking to address what they see as a significant opportunity.
At the same time, major Web companies such as Google and Facebook are building their own highly efficient systems that run open-source software like Linux, and are open to trying data center technologies—from processors and servers to networking and storage—that are not made by the likes of Intel and Cisco. They also are looking for greater customization from component makers.
Mollenkopf said Qualcomm is now ready to make the move into a data center market that he said will be $15 billion by 2020. Its deep experience in the mobile space will be an asset and gives it an advantage over other ARM server chip makers, he said.
“If you look at Qualcomm’s roadmap, the high-end design point for our high-end smartphones, evolution of laptop and tablet, [they are] really starting to merge with what is feasible to put into the data center,” Mollenkopf said. “Because of our position in mobile, we are one of the few companies in the ARM camp who has the incentive naturally to go to that leading node. That puts us in a unique position to drive our unique IP but also our unique ability to go to that leading node because of our position in mobile.”
Qualcomm to Build ARM-Based Server Chips
Moorhead, of Moor Insights and Strategy, said he is looking forward to Mollenkopf and other Qualcomm executives giving more details about the company’s plans. Beyond the timetable, he said he wants to see what Qualcomm is doing regarding such technologies as high-bandwidth server memory and error-correcting code (ECC) memory and a data center fabric, which is crucial to ensuring that all the cores within the systems can communicate efficiently.
He said he expects to see an aggressive Qualcomm when it finally gets into the space, which not only will make life difficult for the smaller ARM server SoC makers, but also Intel, which will find a larger and better-financed rival than it has had in recent years.
“It’s a really big deal because of the scale of their business and how they’ve approached the different markets they’ve gotten into,” Moorhead said. “Qualcomm is not happy being second or third in any market they’ve ever gotten into.”
Mollenkopf said the company already has been talking with system makers.
“We’re engaged with customers, and we are interested in this area for the long term,” he said. “It will take us time to build this business, but we think it is an interesting opportunity moving forward and also provides us with customer contact not only into the device side but into the data center.”
Jay Parikh, vice president of infrastructure engineering with Facebook, was on stage with Mollenkopf at one point. He said the social networking giant and its Snapdragon chips have been an important component of Facebook’s success.
“We always are looking for opportunities to really think about how we build the underlying cloud infrastructure that powers our Facebook applications,” Parikh said. “Technologies like ARM-based servers are really interesting because of the different characteristics they provide in terms of performance, power [and] cooling. Qualcomm-based ARM servers give us the ability to rethink the way that we have built certain parts of our infrastructure.”