Watch Out Intel! Marvell to Make ARM-based Server Chips

Marvell, in an effort to cut the power consumption inside enterprise data centers, plans to ship chips for servers that use the same type of processors that power cell phones. It will ship the quad-core ARM-based systems on a chip later this year, enabling them to deliver a five-fold reduction in power as compared to the dominant x86 architecture, according to a story in EETimes.

Much like Smooth Stone, a startup building ARM-based servers, Marvell hopes that the growing power needs for data centers tip the economies of scale (GigaOM Pro, sub req’d) from the power-sucking x86 architecture built by Intel and AMD to alternative silicon architectures such as ARM’s. This will bring the fight between Intel and ARM currently playing out in the mobile space directly into the data center, where Intel’s core revenue and profits lie.

With 662 ARM licensees, the potential for competition in server chips extends far beyond the current two primary vendors making them today, although many ARM licensees are likely uninterested in the server space. But even bringing in a few more competitors on the silicon side could change the economics, designs and thinking about servers, data centers and even computing.

However, enterprise servers have to run a wide variety of software that’s long been designed for x86 computing, which means Marvell needs to work with someone to port programs like Windows to ARM processors. There is a lot of momentum around alternative chips for servers, but there’s not a lot of boxes being sold, nor are software vendors really spending much time thinking about it.

Another consideration for ARM-based servers is the performance. One top-of-the-line Intel server chip can deliver three times the performance of ARM-based chips, which were designed to sip power, not deliver high-clock speeds. Simon Milner, VP of Marvell’s enterprise group, told EETimes, “We have on the road map quad-core symmetric multiprocressing enterprise ARM-based SoCs that will be here soon.”

We covered that line of chips, which can deliver 1 GHz of performance while consuming 700 milliwatts, and according to Milner, can reach up to 2 GHz while still consuming less than a watt. Current x86 processors can deliver up to 3.6 GHz while consuming up to 130 watts (at the low end they can deliver 1.8 GHz at 40 watts). So the power savings can be substantial, but the challenge of replacing the current generation of commodity computing is akin to the challenge facing the energy industry as it seeks to transition from carbon fuels to renewables.

I’m hoping we’ll hear more about ARM’s server ambitions when Ian Feurgeson, the director of enterprise and embedded solutions at ARM and the guy in charge of the company’s server ambitions, speaks at our Structure 2010 conference in June. Ideally we’ll learn more about what’s being ported to ARM and who might be willing to revamp their data centers.

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