SAN JOSE, Calif. — Cavium will try to drive ARM SoCs into mainstream servers, challenging Intel's Xeon x86 with a family of 28 nm devices using up to 48 2.5 GHz custom 64-bit ARM cores
The networking specialist announced its Thunder family of products at the Computex event in Taiwan. The venue is significant because an increasing share of datacenter servers are built by Taiwan companies such as Foxconn and Quanta.
Thunder chips dissipate 20 to 95 watts for SoCs that contain multiple Ethernet controllers and other system elements, compared to more than 100 W for the Intel Xeon processors alone. In addition, Cavium will enable dual-socket designs that link 96 cores with a coherent processor interface it is already using it its high-end networking chips.
However, Cavium has yet to share performance figures for the chip, which is not yet in first silicon. It expressed confidence it will sample multiple Thunder products before the end of the year and have chips in volume production early next year, in part because as much as 70% of the designs use its existing silicon blocks.
Thunder marks a step beyond the so-called microserver market. To date, most ARM server SoCs have targeted this low-power system concept, which Intel is addressing with a new line of Atom-based server SoCs.
"Cavium is really able to position this chip against the heart of Intel's Xeon product line, and that will be much more interesting to customers because that's where the bulk of the server market is," says Linley Gwennap," principal analyst of The Linley Group, in Mountain View, Calif.
"The Xeon E5 is probably 80% of Intel's server business, so Cavium is hitting the heart of the server market rather than playing around in the fringes as the early ARM chips are doing," Gwennap notes.
Two Thunder processors can share a coherent link, creating a 96-core node sharing up to a TByte of memory.
Currently, AMD is shipping an eight-core ARM server SoC, and Applied Micro is rolling out a similar part. Marvell got some early design wins with its 32-bit Armada products but hasn't discussed any 64-bit plans yet.
"I think Cavium is head-and-shoulders above what other ARM partners are doing," Gwennap told us. "Broadcom [which announced its intentions last year] has a shot at the same performance levels, but it seems to be 6 to 12 months behind, and it hasn't announced products."
Broadcom said in October it will roll out SoCs with quad-threaded, quad-issue, out-of-order cores made in a FinFET process, presumably the 14/16 nm node. That process won't be broadly available from foundries until sometime next year, suggesting Broadcom is following its usual strategy of waiting to enter a market until it matures.
It's still early days for ARM servers. Startup Calexda closed shop in January after pursuing 32-bit SoCs. Recent reports say Samsung killed an ARM server project, although Samsung sources did not respond to questions. The Korean giant has hired several server processor experts from AMD and may continue to have long-term goals in the area.
"I don't think there will be huge revenues [for ARM servers] this year, and even next year will be an early ramp," says Gwennap. "Maybe its 2016 before there's a lot of revenue there -- it will take time for the infrastructure and software base to develop."
Taiwan motherboard maker Gigabyte will take part in Cavium's Thunder event in Taiwan. It made reference designs Cavium will ship toward the end of the year. No other ARM or x86 server makers that might be Thunder users are slated to take part in the event.
Next page: Inside Thunder