SAN FRANCISCO – Making a long anticipated leap from its mobile roots to the cloud, Qualcomm officially entered the server market, announcing it is sampling to top-tier server makers a development platform based on a new SoC.
The news was hailed as the strongest validation to date of ARM's move into servers which has so far been relatively slow and bumpy. Qualcomm forged partnerships with Xilinx and Mellanox which could be important given its big data center customers are exploring FPGAs as co-processors and carriers are adopting new comms architectures such as network function virtualization (NFV).
Qualcomm has "a long history of developing custom IP for high performance microarchitectures and we think we can leverage that expertise into world leading data centers,” Qualcomm President Derek Aberle said at a press event. “Given our position in mobile, we are consistently at the leading node…which is very important to have in a competitive solution in data center.”
Qualcomm provided only a rough sketch of its new SoC and no details on its road map. A pre-production SoC includes 24 custom ARMv8 cores made in a FinFET process. It also includes a memory controller, storage, PCI Express and other custom IP. Qualcomm is aiming at cloud applications such as infrastructure and platform as a service, machine learning, big data and NFV.
Qualcomm's development SoC (above) will have fewer cores than its full production chip and a slightly different layout, which suggests that the company may be open to creating custom systems. Source: Qualcomm
Cloud computing will account for 40% of the server market by 2018, a 110% increase from 2013, to become a $15 billion opportunity by 2020, Qualcomm said. While the U.S. leads in server demand, China is fast approaching to feed its “under penetrated” market.
“There is more change taking place now in [the server] industry than I’ve ever seen, and the root cause of all that is the cloud. It’s accelerating in growth, it’s a worldwide phenomenon, and across all workloads,” said Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president of Qualcomm’s data center group. “[There] is a tsunami in the server market business and this is a good time for a new entrant to come in,” he said.
Xilinx CEO Moshe Gavrielov said tight integration between its FPGAs and Qualcomm’s new server CPUs will provide a 10x to 50x gain in performance per watt. Cloud computing giants Microsoft and Baidu publicly described some of their efforts to adopt FPGAs as co-processors at Hot Chips events last year and again in August.
“These companies are very different than the traditional players in that they control the entire flow,” Gavrielov said, speaking generally of today's data center giants. “They care about low power because, if you look at data centers, the big limiter is how much power you can get into the building. If you can come up with a low power solution, that is very attractive.”
Mellanox President CEO Eyal Waldman said Qualcomm will be able to connect those low power data centers with 10-100 Gbytes/second Ethernet.
Qualcomm has made the right alliances, Moor Insights & Strategy Analyst Gina Longoria told EE Times. Mellanox is a top player in data center networking next to Qualcomm rival Broadcomm. Xilinx is gearing up to compete with the proposed merger of Intel and Altera which aims to deliver integrated server processors and FPGAs.
While competitors such as Applied Micro and Calvium are already shipping ARM-based server SoCs, Qualcomm hopes to stand out through deep relationships with Xilinx and Mellanox, and perhaps through its deeper pockets. Qualcomm promised that it would make “multiple years of serious investment” in the sever space.
Prototype server. Source: Qualcomm
Longoria cautioned that Qualcomm, Xilinix and Mellanox investments must go beyond the chip level. Market entrants underestimate much of the underlying ecosystem and must give companies a good enough return on investment to justify the internal cost of porting over software from the Intel x86.
“ARM has had a few false starts but now one of the biggest [chip companies] is coming forward and they have the potential to invest,” Longoria said. “This is the one that we’re waiting for – either Qualcomm is going to do it or it’s not going happen.”
Qualcomm could also leverage its GPU portfolio in the server space, though Chandrasekher declined to comment further on the company’s roadmap.
— Jessica Lipsky, Associate Editor, EE Times