ARM keeps talking the microserver talk, but when is it going to start walking the walk? And is it even worth it?
The ROI will have to be compelling and the risk to disruption minimal. At this point I’ve not heard anyone articulate how exactly this will happen.
In addition, one has to question the logistics of how competing ARM vendors will work together in a mixed customer environment, given they all have their own unique implementations and fabric strategies.
“If you look at the number of companies looking to do microservers, the market starts looking crowded in a hurry,” said analyst David Kanter, noting that at best there were 30 potential customers for Microservers, though he estimated the real number may be closer to 15.
Kanter explained that to have any hope of success in the market, companies who wanted in would need a serious breadth and quality of IP for CPUs, caches, memory, interconnects, networking, etc.
Indeed, in 2014, servers are going to need large L3 caches, DDR4 memory controllers, 10GBE or Infiniband networking, coherent interconnets (e.g., QPI), PCI-E gen 3, not to mention comprehensive power management and RAS features.
“Some of those pieces you can license, but quite a few you cannot, and even licensing something may not be quite as good as doing a custom design,” said Kanter, noting that most ARM licensees fell short in this respect, and that only AMD and Applied Micro really had what it took at this point in time.
“Applied Micro is interesting because it is using its own custom CPU core that is higher performance than ARM's reference designs,” he said, noting that this gave the firm an advantage in terms of performance and cost structure, should they achieve sufficient volume.
This week, we’re going to see yet another media cycle around microservers as Intel prepares for the upcoming launch of Centerton, the firm’s first server class SoC for the data center. This will be followed by the company’s 22-nm Avoton product in 2013, which will almost assuredly have a follow-on in 2014.
That’s a grand total of three Intel product cycles before we even see our first real ARM server product enter the market.
While nobody questions that Intel most certainly has its work cut out for it in the ARM dominated world of smartphones, the firm has proven it can deliver a competitive product, albeit not at scale yet. Now the pressure is on Intel to build market share and customers in the coming years.
The path forward is equally daunting in the data center and arguably less forgiving for ARM. Enterprise IT managers demand a robust TCO model, have little patience for downtime and ARM is unproven in these areas of real-world deployments.
It may also not be worth the effort.
“If you believe that ARM-based servers can grab 10% market share, how much *silicon* revenue is that? And how many SoC companies can it sustain?” asked Kanter, pointing out that in a market of only about 10 million units, there wasn’t room for five to eight companies.
“If you look at it that way, it's starting to sound like a pretty low volume business,” he said.
The ARM eco-system is coming to the data center, that much is certain, but the road traveled to get there will be a long and challenging one with more competitive pressure than the firm has ever felt before. And success may not taste as sweet as the firm thinks it will be.
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