Intel plays defense against ARM with Cloudera stake

Beyond selling more x86 chips, the Intel investment could be pushing Cloudera away from software development for ARM

Intel's US$740 million investment in software company Cloudera will help sell more x86 chips in Hadoop installations, but it could also be a defensive move to maintain its server lead from the emerging threat posed by 64-bit ARM servers.

Cloudera makes applications based on Apache Hadoop, open-source distributed computing software through which large data sets can be broken down into small pieces and spread across multiple processing units. Intel has its own Hadoop distribution through which customers can funnel software packages, but that will be ultimately replaced with software from Cloudera, which claims to hold a majority of the Hadoop market.

While enterprise adoption of Hadoop is growing, the Cloudera investment will help Intel sell more chips, analysts said. Intel is dominant in server processors with a market share of more than 90 percent and the investment could temporarily take attention away from ARM architecture, with 64-bit ARM servers due to ship late this year or early next. Server makers such as Hewlett-Packard and Dell have been drawn to ARM in recent years.

"Intel is trying to keep [servers] ... from slipping into ARM's hands, and having Cloudera is a bulwark against that possibility," said Roger Kay, principal analyst at Endpoint Technologies Associates.

Cloudera will develop Hadoop for Intel architecture -- primarily x86 chips -- as its "preferred platform," Intel said in a statement. Cloudera last year announced development plans for ARM's 64-bit ARMv8 architecture, but declined Monday to comment on whether it would continue with its plans for ARM, which designs and licenses processors to chip makers.

"Our alliance with Intel is great for our customers and our prospects -- and great for the entire Hadoop community. Innovation will only accelerate as a result. Thus, more and better choices for consumers of our software. That is our focus and the focus of our alliance," said Charles Zedlewski, vice president of products for Cloudera, in an email statement sent via the company's public relations agency.

ARM-based server chips have been announced by Advanced Micro Devices, Cavium, AppliedMicro and others, and will appear in servers late this year or early next year. Server software development today revolves around x86 processors, but a growing list of companies, including Oracle and Citrix, are writing code for ARM servers.

Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said last month that the company is increasing its focus on software to better understand what chips are going to be used for before they are manufactured.

"We now spend a huge amount of time upfront thinking about the experiences we want a user to have before we put one transistor on the chip," Krzanich said during a question-and-answer session with Reddit users.

The primary goal behind Intel's investment in Cloudera is unclear, but the chip maker may be trying to secure more development for x86 over ARM architecture, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

"This may secure Intel's leadership in Hadoop deployments or just delay the inevitable" of ARM taking market share away from Intel, McGregor said.

But McGregor expressed doubts that Cloudera would totally abandon ARM, which could be successful in some applications and segments of the server market, as well as in budget-conscious server deployments.

"Altering a company's product strategy based on one partner or investor would be foolish and very shortsighted. But then again, look how long Dell was an Intel-only vendor," McGregor said.

It's early to predict how ARM-based servers will do, but the deal is Intel's acknowledgement of Cloudera's growing heft and influence, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"Even if Cloudera slows or halts development for ARM, if demand grows, I expect that other Hadoop players will fill the void," King said.

Analyst Patrick Moorhead agreed, saying someone will pick up the slack on Hadoop development for ARM.

Intel's investment may have a short-term impact, but it won't hurt ARM servers in the long run, said Moorhead, who is president and principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.

"OpenStack [cloud computing software] is the most important development for ARM servers and that is progressing quite nicely. I don't think Intel is cornering the market on Hadoop as there are other alternatives that may play even better than Cloudera," Moorhead said in an email.

ARM servers are of interest to companies that process large volumes of Web transactions. HP said it would put ARM server chips in its Moonshot server, and Facebook and Google have also experimented with ARM chips in data centers.

Asked for comment about the Intel investment in Cloudera, ARM did not comment specifically on the deal, but a spokesman said that many ARM partners are already involved in Hadoop development.

Intel will continue to throw additional resources at software, analysts said. Intel is already customizing chips for certain customers such as Facebook, which needs processors tuned to run specific applications.

"In the long-term, the market will determine the hardware and software platforms that are used," Tirias Research's McGregor said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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Agam Shah

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