Startup to relaunch AMCC's X-Gene 3 as its first product
MADISON, Wisc. — Ampere Computing, a startup led by former Intel President Renée James, unveiled its ARM-based server SoC, promising to “accelerate hyperscale cloud computing innovations.”
James' new company will target the fast-growing data-center server market dominated by Intel. Perhaps, therefore, this is a story about redemption.
However, it remains far from clear whether this will attain poetic justice for James. Industry observers remain skeptical that Ampere’s ARM server SoC can make a dent in Intel’s near-monopoly.
A little history behind Ampere
After all, Ampere’s “new” server SoC chip isn’t exactly new.
According to Linley Gwennap, principal analyst at the Linley Group and a close follower of the market segment, the ARM-based server SoC Ampere is pitching today was originally designed by Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC) back in 2015. Known as the X-Gene 3, it was AMCC’s third-generation ARM-based server SoC, running at 3 GHz, made in a 16nm FinFET process at TSMC.
AMCC’s X-Gene 3, however, never got into production. AMCC, suffering from losses on its previous generation server SoCs and ballooning development cost for X-Gene 3, sold out to Macom in late 2016. Macom, however, from the get-go, focused its interest in the communications part of AMCC, not its X-Gene ARM server business. The X-Gene enterprise ended up getting shopped around, eventually being acquired by the Carlyle Group, a private equity firm.
Meanwhile, after leaving Intel in the summer of 2015, James joined Carlyle in early 2016 as an operating executive. The Carlyle Group rebranded the X-Gene ARM server SoC business as Ampere. James became CEO last fall.
In short, Ampere’s “new” server SoC is “the same processor that’s been kicked around on the market for a while,” said Gwennap.
To be fair, in restarting what used to AMCC’s third-generation ARM server SoC business, the Carlyle Group infused new blood into Ampere’s existing staff of 250 people.
Among a handful of ex-Intel engineers Carlyle installed at Ampere include: a 30-year Intel veteran, Atiq Bajwa, as Ampere’s chief architect, and Rohit Vadwans, as executive vice president of hardware engineering. Bajwa, at Intel, was the head of X86 architecture for all products, while Vadwans worked at Intel as a head of platform engineering. Greg Favor, who was AMCC’s lead architect of X-Gene SoCs, remains at Ampere as Senior Fellow.
Kumar Sankaran, Ampere’s vice president of software and platform engineering, told us that Ampere’s first product will be coming out before mid-2018.
Highlights of the SoC will include a large number of cores (32 ARM V8 64-bit cores) and performance up to 3.3GHz, low power consumption at 125 watts, memory capacity of 1 Terabyte per socket, and high bandwidth PCIEs — 42 lanes of PCIE Gen 3 — accommodating external add-ons. Ampere claims that its debut X-Gene 3 offers 33 percent higher memory capacity and bandwidth than rivals’ SoCs.
Ampere's first produce specs (Source: Ampere)
Ampere (Santa Clara, Calif.) believes it will benefit from 64-bit ARM V8-A architectural license originally acquired by AMCC. Ampere regards the license as key to its ability to further customize silicon designs. “We can even control the power a chip draws in accordance with applications,” explained Sankaran.
Shane Rau, research vice president for computing semiconductors at IDC, told EE Times, “An architectural license buys you long-term design choice and differentiation.”
He added, “If you’re a serious server processor vendor vying for the average selling prices and margins of the segment, you must select your target customers and markets and design for them, have a combination of price, performance, power, and features that differentiate yourself, and sustain that differentiation over the long term.” In short, an architectural license allows all that, whereas a standard ARM core does not.
But given that other chip vendors such as Cavium, Huawei (which owns HiSilicon), Broadcom, Qualcomm and others also have ARM’s architectural license, it’s unclear how big an edge accrues to Ampere.
Next page: ARM ecosystem getting ready?
ARM ecosystem getting ready?
Ampere’s Sankaran told us that the market today is hungry for an instruction-set architecture offering that is an alternative to X86.
But, is it? Intel’s continued dominance on the server SoC market suggests an underwhelmed market demand for ARM-based server processors.
IDC’s Rau told us, “It’s clear that what hampered the efforts of prior ARM server processor vendors was the lack of a hardware and software ecosystem and processor designs that could not scale in performance sufficiently to compete with x86 server processor vendors.”
However, Rau averred that the ARM ecosystem of OEMs, cloud service providers, ODMs, OS vendors, application vendors “is sufficient to produce a capable data center system” today.
Asked about the processor designs, Rau said, “I cannot speak to the technical merits of Ampere’s design specifically.” But he noted, “I can say that the latest generation of server processors designs, including Ampere’s, Qualcomm’s, and Cavium’s have attributes that prior generations didn’t, attributes such as more processor cores, higher performance cores, and bigger caches which are all attributes of performance scalability.”
Ampere is targeting workloads performed by cloud hyperscalers.
Ampere goes for cloud processors (Source: IDC)
Gwennap observed that data center requirements have continued to evolve. A few years ago, this market was all about web tier applications, “doing more boring stuff like web pages and emails,” said Gwennap. “Today, it is more about big data and data analytics including deep learning.” Every time an “Alexa” command pipes up to the cloud, data-centers servers must recognize the voice and be ready to process and analyze.
In the end, for Ampere to win the market, “they need to deliver better value,” said Gwennap. “This is about offering better performance per watt, and per dollar. Qualcomm, for example, has already set a bar high” in that regard.
Cloud hyperscalers “need a flexible combination of price, performance, power, and features,” noted Rau.
As for specific designs for server SoCs, IDC’s Rau observed that Intel has the broadest product portfolio of X86 server processors primarily targeted at “2-socket systems and higher.”
In contrast, AMD and ARM vendors are targeting 2-socket systems and lower, specifically, single socket. Rau said, “There could be some sense to that.” He believes customers will prefer a single processor either optimized through their own internal designs or through the configuration of system to server-specific workloads, such as storage or networking.
Asked about Ampere’s future, Rau appears to keep faith in Renée James and the backing from the Carlyle Group. He sees James’ role as all about “establishing relationships with major potential customers.” Carlyle’s support “will be critical if it is sustained over the long-term roadmap of products that Ampere is promising.”
Gwenapp remains skeptical. For Ampere to succeed, its first product — based on AMCC’s former X-Gene 3 — must either blow the doors off the cloud-server market, or it has to hit a home run with its next-generation products, he explained.
— Junko Yoshida, Chief International Correspondent, EE Times