Arm faces uphill battle in server market

Arm faces a challenge stealing market share from Intel and AMD, with design and customer acceptance issues

Arm has entered the server market with Marvell Semiconductor announcing a chip based on its processor architecture, but customer acceptance and design issues could affect its chances of winning market share from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, analysts said.

Marvell on Monday announced a quad-core server chip, Armada XP, which is based on an Arm design. The chip puts Arm in direct competition with Intel and AMD, which currently offer chips based on x86 architecture for servers.

Arm licenses processor designs to chip makers like Marvell, Texas Instruments, Samsung and Qualcomm. Arm processors go into most of the world's smartphones and are making their way into tablets and servers. Arm has talked about entering the server market since 2008, and Marvell is one of the first to announce a server chip based on Arm designs.

Arm's low-power processors could provide better performance-per-watt than Intel or AMD chips, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

Arm-based servers could make a mark in the low-end server space, where applications don't require heavy computation, Brookwood said. For example, the servers could be well-suited for fast-moving Web transactions. Many Web servers rely on the Linux OS, which Arm processors support, he said.

"Intel is trying to get into Arm's territory with smartphone and tablet [processors], and Arm is trying to get into Intel's territory with low-end server [processors]," Brookwood said. "This will be an interesting battle over the next two to four years."

There is a growing interest in building servers with low-power chips as companies look to cut energy costs. For example, SeaMicro currently offers the power-efficient SM10000 server, which packs 512 Intel Atom netbook processors on miniature motherboards the size of credit cards. AMD has also said it may consider putting its upcoming low-power chips in servers.

Though low-power servers are being increasingly implemented in data centers, organizations may not readily shift architectures, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

Companies place the weight of their businesses on IT infrastructures and are hesitant to migrate entrenched server installments unless they find the new architecture reliable, McCarron said. Beyond reliability, Arm also needs to support a wide range of applications to find adopters.

"Any time you have a new product in a category, it takes a while to ramp," McCarron said.

Arm in September announced the Cortex-A15 processor, which was designed to handle server-type operations. The processor includes virtualization capabilities, supports up to 1TB of physical memory and can scale performance with the help of more cores. However, no official chip based on the processor has been announced yet.

There are also some architectural limits for current Arm-based chips that could hamper server adoption, Brookwood said. For example, memory limits of up to 4GB could limit server operations from a software standpoint.

The current and Cortex-A15 architectures are also based on 32-bit processor design, Brookwood said. While Intel and AMD moved up to 64-bit design a while ago, Arm is behind its rivals.

"The next iteration of Arm in 2011 or 2012 will come out with 64-bit extensions," Brookwood said.

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Agam Shah

IDG News Service
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