There has long been talk that Nvidia wanted into the server CPU business, but most industry watchers believed it would go the x86 route. Instead, it chose ARM, which arguably shakes up the market far more than just another x86 option would have. ARM’s dominance in mobile devices means it is the processor of the future, and its forthcoming Cortex A15 server design is mighty compelling from a power-performance standpoint.
So, who needs to figure out a game plan for combating the Nvidia processor once it’s available (likely in 2013, when Nvidia’s Tesla GPU reaches the “Maxwell” generation)? A few companies spring to mind:
It goes without saying that Intel and AMD have the most to lose from Nvidia’s planned server processor. Their x86 processors currently dominate in desktops, servers and supercomputers of all types. Nvidia, then will directly affect at least a portion of their businesses — especially those like gaming and HPC, where parallel processing reigns supreme. Further, both Intel and AMD are pushing their own hybrid CPU-GPU chips (Sandy Bridge and Fusion, respectively), and an Nvidia GPU-CPU option could be a threat to those emerging businesses.
As the startup that’s presently the face of ARM-based servers — and, in fact, ARM Holding’s chosen one — one might think Calxeda has a lot to fear from Nvidia moving in on its turf. But that might not be the case. Calxeda appears focused on delivering energy-efficient servers for web data centers, which don’t necessarily fall into Nvidia’s higher-performance scope. Plus, if Calxeda delivers a product this year, as expected, it will have almost two years to build momentum and customers before Project Denver becomes a product.
ARM-licensee Marvell also has plans to sell its own server processor based on ARM’s Cortex-A15 design, and it could be a real loser if Nvidia’s chip lives up to expectations. Not only is Marvell a new name in server processors, but (unlike Calxeda) it’s also without a server line in which to package its processors. However, assuming Marvell goes after relatively low-performance web applications and takes advantage of its time-to-market advantage over Nvidia (Marvell’s chips are slated to ship well before 2013), it might be able to carve out its own niche and leave the high-performance business for Nvidia. Cost also will be a consideration — it seems only logical that Nvidia’s GPU-CPU hybrid will cost more than Marvell’s CPU-only chip.
To read about other companies that could lose out to Nvidia’s new processor, read my analysis at GigaOM Pro (subscription required).
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