The Centric 2400 10nm server processor is a bold, expensive gamble that a company like Broadcom would never make.
After years of development, Qualcomm finally released its ARM-based processor server, and in the process made it clear that it is going directly after Intel’s cloud server business.
The Centriq 2400 10nm server processor is the result of a bold and expensive undertaking many years in the making. It represents the kind of ambitious, innovative gamble that the semiconductor industry needs to keep it vibrant. And it’s a bet that a company like Broadcom would never make.
In a San Jose event featuring ecosystem partners including Microsoft, Red Hat and Canonical, Qualcomm announced that it’s in pilot production and has shipped Centriq cloud server processors for revenue this quarter.
Executive Chairman Paul Jacobs took to the podium to explain why Qualcomm invested in building a cloud server processor: With the advent of intelligent mobile processors and the forthcoming 5G standard, Qualcomm believes it is critical to have a data center that can scale to meet the demands of a connected world. Rather than rely on Intel to fulfill that data center need, Qualcomm believes it can bring value to this market.
Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm Datacenter Technologies, speaks at the Centriq unveiling in San Jose Wednesday.
Credit: Kevin Krewell
Qualcomm is convinced its expertise in developing low-power ARM cores for mobile processors can be applied to server processors as well, lowering the power and cost of server processors while also maintaining performance. The company is quite proud that Centriq is the first 10 nm server processor to be put into production.
The Centriq 2400 processor consist of a family of SOC processors ranging from 40 to 48 cores. Qualcomm announced pricing for three variations of the processor, priced from $888 up to $1,995.
The Microsoft Azure team appears to be one of the early collaborators and customers for the Centriq processor. Microsoft has already deployed Centriq processors inside Microsoft for internal use and has ported a range of its toolchain for the processor, although there is no customer facing product yet.
NEXT PAGE: Technical Detail Revealed
Many of the technical details of Centriq have already been revealed at the Hot Chips conference and at the Linley Group Processor Conference earlier this year. What was missing was the clock speeds, price points, and power requirements. We now have the full story.
The top TDP envelope for Centriq processor is only 120 W, which is quite moderate compared with many of the Intel Xeon processors, which can range to over 200 W. In addition, the Centriq processor is a complete system-on-chip (SoC) which includes all I/O connectivity, while the Intel processors require an external hub chip. (In Qualcomm’s comparisons with Intel, it neglected the hub chip, which gives Qualcomm even better power and price comparisons numbers.)
The top-of-the-line Centriq processor has a nominal clock speed of 2.2 GHz, and a boost clock of 2.6 GHz. Qualcomm indicated that the 2.6 GHz boost clock can be sustained by all cores simultaneously until thermal throttling kicks in. There is no intermediate clock speed for situations where only a portion of the cores are active.
Chart showing Centriq performance per watt comparison versus Intel top-end Xeon Platinum, Gold and Silver.
This contrasts with Intel, which has different boost clocks depending upon the number of active cores. Qualcomm positioned its product as providing more predictable responses than Intel, but it does appear it gave up on some potential peak performance to maintain more consistency.
The Qualcomm Centriq 2460 is the top-of-the-line processor with 48 cores, burst clock of 2.6GHz, 60MB of unified L3 cache, and a 120W TDP envelope. The Centriq 2452 has 46 cores capable of 2.6Ghz burst speed, with 57.5MB of L3 cache and which also has a 120W TDP. The lowest end part is the Centriq 2434 with 40 cores, up to 2.5GHz burst clock speed, 50MB of L3 cache and with a slightly lower TDP of 110W.
While the Centriq 2460 as a peak TDP of 120 W, Qualcomm showed data that while running the SPECint 2006 benchmark, the average power of the various subtests came in at a medium power of 65W. The company is quite proud of how power efficient the Centriq processor can be.
NEXT PAGE: Centriq Versus Skylake
Qualcomm will position the Centriq 2460 against Intel’s Xeon Platinum 8180 Processor (Skylake) with 28 cores, 56 threads, 38.5M of L3 Cache, and a base clock speed of 2.5 GHz. The 8180 also has a TDP of 205W.
Using the GCC compiler for SPECint rate 2006, Qualcomm showed the 2460 and the 8180 are in a dead heat on performance, but the Qualcomm chip had a 45 percent better perf/Watt and was only one-fifth the list price ($2K vs $10K).
Qualcomm will be ramping to volume and its system partners will be releasing servers over the next year. Many cloud server vendors, like Microsoft and Alibaba, may build out Centriq-based services during that time.
Investment in the Centriq processor started many years ago and was a major gamble for the company. Qualcomm had no experience in building server processors at the time and had to build a team and diverting some talent away from it Snapdragon processors to build a 64-bit ARM core specifically for servers.
Chart showing Centriq performance per dollar comparison with Intel top-end Xeon Platinum, Gold and Silver.
Qualcomm was willing to take that gamble because it knew that there were there was a tectonic change coming to the data center and it wanted to be part of that change. The company bet that data center workloads were going to change based on cloud computing and the need to process the flood of data coming from mobile devices. Believing it was well positioned to provide value to the data center, and not just the mobile devices, Qualcomm rolled the dice.
This is the kind of bet that a company like Broadcom would not make. While Broadcom can disrupt business models, it just does not invest in disruptive technology that requires years of investment to develop a return. The chip industry still need innovators like Qualcomm (and NVIDIA, AMD, and others) to keep it vibrant. Consolidation for the sake of the bottom line does not serve the industry well in the long run.
Photo credit: Kevin Krewell
— Kevin Krewell is a principal analyst at Tirias Research.