AppliedMicro to crank up mobile chips to 16 cores for servers

AppliedMicro is sharing details about its X-Gene 2 and X-Gene 3 ARM server chips ahead of Computex

AppliedMicro chip and servers

AppliedMicro chip and servers

AppliedMicro plans to put ARM mobile chips with 16 cores in servers, but is approaching the market cautiously following the abrupt shutdown of ARM server pioneer Calxeda late last year.

AppliedMicro will talk about its faster and more power-efficient processors called X-Gene 2 and X-Gene 3, which has 3D transistors and 16 cores, at a forum in Taipei hosted by Digitimes Friday, ahead of next week's Computex trade show. The company's first 64-bit X-Gene low-power chip is based on ARM architecture and will be in servers by the end of this year.

There is an interest in ARM chips for Web hosting. Their low-power consumption could help cut data-center electric bills. But only a handful of 32-bit ARM servers are available from companies like Mitac and Boston Ltd. More 64-bit ARM servers are expected to come out by the end of this year.

With the X-Gene 2 and 3 chips, AppliedMicro wants to pack more horsepower in dense and rack servers. Around 20 server makers have expressed interest in using the first X-Gene chip, said Gaurav Singh, vice president in technical strategy at AppliedMicro.

Hewlett-Packard has said it will use X-Gene in its Moonshot dense servers, and Singh said more partners will be announced at the Taipei forum. The initial X-Gene servers are a start and a good look at how ARM stacks up against Intel's x86 chip, which dominates the server market, Singh said.

AppliedMicro has demonstrated the server chip running OpenStack, Memcached and other key Web applications. The company wants to ensure the relevant software and tools are ready when the servers arrive, Singh said.

"The whole benefit of ARM versus the incumbent, people can actually see it now," Singh said. "There's definitely excitement."

The X-Gene has eight customized 2.4GHz CPU cores made using the older 40-nanometer process. It has integrated networking and I/O modules, error correction and RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features.

The successor X-Gene 2 chip could appear in servers in as soon as 12 to 18 months, but it could be later, Singh said. The chip will also have eight cores, but will deliver better performance-per-watt and be made using the advanced 28-nanometer process. Network and I/O enhancements will result in throughput improvements, which will allow processing cores in a server to exchange data faster. The chip will also reduce application latency so servers can create and terminate virtual machines faster.

Singh did not provide a release date for the X-Gene 3, but it will boast many power-efficiency and performance improvements with 3D transistors. The chip could have 16 cores and will be made using FinFET processors, which allows placing 3D transistors on chips.

"We are looking at an increased core count where it makes sense. What the market wants now is eight cores," Singh said. "There are still innovations from the microarchitecture that can come. We're focusing on that."

AppliedMicro's main ARM server challenger is Advanced Micro Devices, which is shipping a 64-bit ARM processor code-named Seattle to test customers. Cavium and Marvell are also developing ARM server chips.

AppliedMicro has first-mover advantage as it is the only company with a 64-bit chip based on a custom core, while others are using off-the-shelf parts like ARM's Cortex-A57 cores, said Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy.

ARM's Cortex-A57 core will also be used in smartphones and tablets.

But the competition will pick up as AMD is planning a customized ARM core, Moorhead said. The ARM core, called K12, was recently announced by AMD as part of Project Skybridge, a series of products that will provide the plumbing for its ARM and x86 cores to be interchanged or combined on a single motherboard.

A road map of X-Gene 2 and 3 shows that AppliedMicro has future plans for ARM servers, Moorhead said. Showing commitment is important for chip makers, especially with questions lingering around ARM servers, Moorhead said.

AppliedMicro's Singh acknowledged the skepticism surrounding ARM servers and said the company is approaching the future cautiously. The failure of the first ARM server chip maker, Calxeda, raised eyebrows, but AppliedMicro learned some lessons.

"Calxeda was a very good exercise in validating. They were able to come out and show TCO [total-cost-of-ownership] benefits in using their parts," Singh said. "They were too early, and were not able to sustain the investments."

Calxeda started off with a 32-bit ARM server chip and had an innovative fabric, but server performance is critical and there was a demand for 64-bit chips, Singh said. AppliedMicro decided not to invest in 32-bit chips and started off with 64-bit server chips.

Though pitted against each other, ARM server chip makers have a common goal to dismantle Intel's dominance, Singh said. ARM server companies jointly defined 64-bit server architecture through ARM's Server Base System Architecture organization and worked on software development through the nonprofit Linaro.

But AppliedMicro believes it has an advantage because of the custom cores in X-Gene.

"There will be excitement," Singh said. "The first company out there gets feedback from the market."

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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