Big, disruptive opportunities don't come along very often. Don't expect one anytime soon in the mega battle between ARM and Intel.
For example, the road to ARM-based servers now looks longer and narrower than previously thought. Two years ago, ARM and its partners had visions of significantly encroaching on the cloud computing space Intel dominates with its Xeon processor
Applied Micro launched to much fanfare its XGene SoC based on a custom 64-bit ARM core at ARM Tech Con in 2011. Soon after, a laundry list of other ARM partners, from AMD to Samsung, tipped plans or quietly ramped up ARM server design teams.
This week, Hewlett-Packard said it has server boards using ARM-based chips from Applied, Calxeda, and Texas Instruments running in the lab and will ship them next year. But HP rival Dell, which has also been prototyping ARM-based servers, added a little darker color to the situation.
The ARM server launches "feel like the end of 2014 or early 2015," said Robert Hormuth, who is leading the investigations at Dell.
Both Dell and HP say the ARM-based systems will target relatively narrowly focused markets such as storage rather than mainstream servers. Both companies already ship low-power servers using Avoton, Intel's second-generation Atom-based server SoC launched earlier this year.
The updated ARM timing means Intel will be able to field a whole new generation of the Atom server SoCs before ARM systems launch. That means leading-edge ARM products such as Applied's XGene may have to compete with Intel parts using similarly advanced peripheral blocks and made in a 14nm process. Applied uses 40nm for its XGene.
What's worse for the ARM camp is Intel has telegraphed plans for a low-power server SoC using, not Atom, but the new Haswell generation of its full blown x86 core. Some analysts are already saying the Xeon-class Intel Broadwell chip could sink the plans of many companies that had eyed a significant market for ARM-based servers.
That might explain why Nvidia, one of a dozen ARM server SoC wannabes, has gone quiet about its Project Denver plans announced in January 2011. Similarly, Huawei, Qualcomm, and Samsung quietly ramped up ARM server teams but then kept mum about them.
Broadcom recently announced its plans for a custom 64-bit ARM core and SoCs based on it. But like rival Cavium with its plans for an ARM-based Thunder chip, the companies are said to target communications gear as much as, if not more than, mainstream servers -- at least for now.
So ARM is not likely to encroach on Intel's cloud territory in any significant way soon. The good news for ARM is Intel is not showing signs of a breakout opportunity in mobile either.
Disruption is wonderful to talk about, but hard to do.