Is Google Really Ready to Switch to ARM?

There have been cascades of repeated headlines and rumor-rich articles running over the last few days that assert that Google is “looking to replace Intel with Qualcomm ARM chips” for their data center servers.   Everyone loves a good fight, so its not surprising that the press is jumping up and down, yelling “Fight!  Fight!  Fight!”   But seriously folks,  do you really think that Google would announce such a strategy before they even see silicon?

First, I have not seen any reports claiming that Qualcomm is sampling silicon yet.  It takes a lot of time and effort to produce, optimize, and test an SOC, especially one capable of meeting the challenges of the datacenter.  And even if they are sampling, its only first silicon samples, which means it won’t be full performance (frequency) nor fully functional.  Which means Google cannot be certain that it meets their requirements.  Hey,  Google didn’t become the largest company in the word (at least for a few moments) by making brash decisions about their technology.

Second, Google, no doubt, is anxious to lower costs by evaluating alternative technologies, including ARM and POWER.  But having worked with them before,  I can tell you that they will be thorough, methodical,  and meticulous in their analysis of any Xeon alternative. They will need at least a year, I would suspect, before they put anything into pre-production.   And they will likely avoid a patchwork approach of workload specific architectures, which creates lifecycle and system/network management process nightmares.

Finally, Google is very very smart. They will happily talk about potential Intel replacement technologies, because this puts Intel on notice and strengthens their negotiating position.

So, I think its great that Google likes the PROMISE of Qualcom’s ARM SOC!   But that is a far cry from the predicted premature announcement that they will adopt it.  More likely, they will say they are working with Qualcomm, just like they are working with

Calxeda lives! (Well, at least the Fabric does!)

Last week, in conjunction with the AMD announcement that they are (finally!) shipping the Opteron A1100 series ARM Cortex A57,  a little-known company debuted 2 fabric interconnect solutions for Hyperscale data centers. As some of you may recall, AtGames Holdings purchase the Intellectual Property from Calxeda’s bankers a little over a year ago.  AtGames was lined up to be Calxeda’s largest initial customer, and were left in a jam when Calxeda suddenly folded. The SilverLining Systems subsidiary announced that they had taken the Calxeda technology and have repackaged and reimagined it to produce two new products aimed at the Rack-scale Fabric market. Given all the excitement this fabric generated, this was perhaps more newsworthy than the expected AMD announcement,  so I wanted to chime in with a few thoughts


The first product is a PCIe card with one Calxeda ECX-2000 ARM SOC,  supplying 4 XAUI ports  to interconnect other servers on eh fabric,  and one 10GbE SFP for uplinks to the Top Of Rack Switch.  It also supports up to 8 GB of optional DRAM to enable the four ARM Cortex A15 processors (normally turned off when the card is acting only as a fabric adapter) to execute jobs such as packet inspection and other offload tasks.   The second product, which will be available in Mid 2016, is an ASIC for custom server developers.  The Fabric Interconnect Chip (FIC) is basically the ECX-2000 without the cache and the A15 cores, providing the 80 GbE fabric switch, the PHY’s, and the ARM Cortex A7 to manage the routing tables and optimize traffic flow across the fabric.  These products will reduce in-rack networking costs by around 75%, according to Silver Lining Systems.

With this announcement, the promise of the Calxeda Fabric is decoupled from the ARM world and can now be used to interconnect standard x86 servers, or build custom dense servers with virtually any processor or SOC.  TPM has already covered the products in this article, but for those who knew and loved Calxeda,  I’d like to add a few comments.   (Full disclosure:  I have been recently consulting with Silver Lining Systems.)


The SLS Newport fabric interconnect adapter (FIA)

There is a lesson here for all you guys trying to provide innovative new technologies. One that is so obvious it can easily be overlooked in the zest for New and Improved!.   Your new product must provide unique value but it MUST BE EASILY CONSUMED.   Calxeda changed too many things at once:  “Here’s a new processor  with a new (for servers) instruction set, a new (fledgling) ecosystem, in a new form factor,  and with a radically different networking topology and management approach.”  “WHOA!” the customers all said.  “One change at at time, please!”

Now, had we simply focussed on ARM, we might have been more successful, but without a differentiator we wouldn’t have lasted long.  Had we just been a Fabric company, going up against Mellanox and CISCO and Intel and …,  we never would have gotten the funding. BUT, had we produced two dies, the Fabric customer could have kept his Intel processors, as SLS has done now, or just used the ARM SOC  as AMD has done,  or they could combine the two.  But we didn’t offer them that choice.  We realized the problem, but it was too late to fix it and we ran out of cash when our investors ran out of patience.

So, bottom line?  Change as little as possible and still produce value through innovation. OR produce a plug and play complete solution like an iPhone that fits within the larger infrastructure the customer is already comfortable with.

Three New Year Resolutions for ARM Server & SOC Vendors

As we enter 2016, its probably a good time to reflect on where the ARM Server movement stands.  There are now two vendors with production V8 parts in the market, Cavium and Applied Micro, and more are on the way from AMD, Huawei, Qualcomm, and others.   So, the future looks bright, with lots of promises from major vendors.  On the negative side, there remains no mainstream ARM-based servers in the market,  and zero production use cases we can examine.  Even more concerning, there still aren’t any published benchmarks of note. Let’s examine what needs to be done to restore some luster and credibility to this powerful vision of an alternative architectural standard that can compete with Intel Xeon for the server market.

2015 ARM TechCon and SC’15 recently provided fresh opportunities for the ARM Server community to talk up the latest chips and roadmap announcements.  The surprising news was: there was no new news!  Sure, AMCC announced intentions to produce a 3rd generation SOC.  Thats not news; of course they will do a 16nm part with lots of cores and goodies after they get their 28nm part out.  And Gigabyte announced a Cavium-based server design,  a year after Cavium supposedly was ready for prime time. But where were the use cases and success stories?

A case in point: During a well-attended HPC session sponsored by ARM Holdings at SC’15,  Dr. Olof Barring of CERN, lamented that the reality has fallen short of the claims made by the SOC vendors.  CERN, one of the world’s leading technology institutions and champions of power-efficient computing and storage,  has been unable to  acquire 64-bit ARM servers that vendors claim are supposedly “in production”.  Perhaps worse,  the 64-bit prototypes he has been able to get his hands on did not demonstrate performance per watt  advantages touted by their vendors. “Neither ARM nor POWER 8 has delivered the performance per watt we see today with our Intel servers”, he said.

The harsh reality is that the current (initial) batch of ARM V8  SOCs are still seeking their niches in the market,  and it will take time before we see competitive ARM SOCS for general purpose server workloads.   So, the perennial battle cry has been “ARM Servers are coming!”, and unfortunately this will remain the case for some time to come.  (See Timothy Prickett Morgan’s excellent article on why we are still waiting.) But eventually, ARM will succeed with advances in core microarchitectures, and by narrowing the gap afforded by Intel’s Fabulous Fabs.  With this in mind,  here’s my list of suggested New Year’s resolutions for the industry’s players to consider:

New Years Resolution #1:  Be Patient. The effort to bring forward a competitive SOC and software ecosystem will take years to materialize. We will need faster cores, advanced process nodes like 14nm FINFET,  and lots of work on the optimized software stack such as those begun by RedHat, ARMH, and Canonical..

New Years Resolution #2:  Tell the truth.   ARM Server SOC vendors have been fairly undisciplined with in communicating the facts in terms of  schedule, performance, and power consumption, resulting in the perception of “late”, “slow” chips that are not as power efficient as their Intel competition when it comes to number crunching. Vendors should set realistic expectations for schedules, performance, and power consumption and be very explicit about their SOC’s applicability for specific workloads.

New Years Resolution #3:  Be transparent.  A corollary of #2.  Your customers are very smart; they can handle the truth.  And they tire of hearing claims of superior performance per watt without any reproducible benchmarks or 3rd party measurements. So, give your gear to folks like Anandtech and let them measure the efficiency with real-world workloads. Yes, synthetic benchmarks will always give Intel an advantage, and they aren’t relevant to the sort of workloads you are targeting.  So tell us something that *is* relevant to your markets.

Have I grown skeptical of ARM’s potential in Servers?  No, I remain enthusiastic and optimistic about the future.  Lots of hard work remains.  Be vigilant, take the high road,  and trust that your customers are smart enough to tell the difference between facts and BS.

Note: the opinions expressed in this blog are solely the views of the author.


I’m Baaaaccckkkkk!!!! (And just in time, too!)

Last week,as followers on LinkedIN may know,  I left AMD after a 16 month stint leading the strategy and marketing efforts for Servers (ARM and X86),  and more recently as GM for HPC.  Now that I am unemployed, I am free (within reason) to speak out again on whatever pops into my bald head, so get ready too rumble.

Karl at CastAt AMD, the latter (HPC) gig was a blast, while the former,  well, not so much. The AMD HPC strategy was picked up by the media and will be a hot topic at SC’15.  In the realm of the server, AMD’s market share continues to plummet as they await both the production ARM Seattle part as well as the Xen-based next gen X86.  Meanwhile. there’s not much to sell and market!  More to come on both of these topics (although don’t expect any disclosures of a confidential nature!).

Meanwhile, ARM TechCon is only a few weeks away, followed by SC’15 in Austin (My Home Town!).  I will attend both,  so ping me at if you would like to get together at either event!  I’ve been known to frequent the fine dining and drinking establishments around Austin and can show you a good time.

So, if anyone is still out there looking for an alternative to Xeon for their server apps, keep checking in here.   I will restart my blogging here and hope someone is listening!!!

Ciao for Niao!

Karl , Chief Explorer

RUFN (Retired Until Further Notice)

A not-so-small step forward for ARM-kind



Two major milestones were reached this week for fans of ARM-based server gear.   First, HP and Applied Micro announced the 1st production ARM server this week with appropriate fanfare.   Here’s an analysis by Paul Teich and Gina Longoria (another Calxeda Alumni) of Moor Insights and Strategy.   Second, AMD showed off 2 OS’es (RedHat and SUSE), 2 JVMs (OpenJDK and Oracle),  and Hadoop running for the 1st time on an ARM A57 based server at JavaOne.   As Harish Jonnalagadda of BSN noted,  “Adding Hadoop functionality to its software ecosystem is a natural move for AMD as its target clients will be looking to use its server clusters to process large data sets. The low-power nature of the CPUs make them ideal for processing large chunks of information and undertaking high I/O tasks.”

[Read more…]

Haswell E5 and the iPhone6: Why would anyone ever need more?


Aiphone6s expected,  Intel® announced the Haswell E5 processor family for Servers and Workstations at IDF on September 9.  Coincidentally the event was just up the valley from Apple’s event announcing the (ARM-based) iPhone 6, 6Plus, and Apple Watch.  Between the two media-saturation blitzes, one could barely find coverage of misbehaving NFL stars or Russian would-be Czars in the day’s news headlines.  While few would connect these two events in any way,  to me there is  a common thread,  best summarized by my interpretation of their messaging:  “It’s a floor wax! It’s a desert topping!  Its everything you ever wanted,  and more!”   If you’ll allow me, …

[Read more…]

I was so impressed with AMD’s strategy, I joined the company!


As an analyst I was happy to attend AMD’s industry analyst summit back in May. I learned how they are leveraging their expertise and IP to implement an ambidextrous SOC strategy, including both custom and standard ARM cores. In fact, I am so bullish on the strategy and team, I’ve decided to join up and become the VP Marketing for server products.

Not sure what that means for this blog, but hopefully I can continue to post interesting stuff for y’all!


Canonical: present and accounted for…. Redhat where art thou?

Image   Image                                                       Image      Image

Canonical and Applied Micro demonstrated IceHouse Production OpenStack deployment in preparation for Computex next week, the behemoth Asian Tech Show in Taipei.  Why does Canonical always seem to be out in front,  while our dear friends at Redhat seem to provide only lip service to ARM servers?   Canonical has provided production (“LTS”, or Long Term Support) for Ubuntu since the 12.04 release,  two full years ago on 32-bit systems,  and now they are doing the same for ARM V8 64-bit platforms, starting with Applied’s X-Gene.  Meanwhile, Redhat sends dear Jon Masters, their uber-brilliant ARM Enthusiast,  all around the world touting ARM servers without a committed RedHat RHEL-equivalent release on their public roadmap.   So, Canonical has an -strength OS and the complete Canonical stack including OpenStack,  and Redhat has Jon’s vivacious personality and slides.   Hmmm.

We’ve seen this movie before.  When IBM decided to invest in Linux to revive the Mainframe, SUSE stepped up and supported the system in production environments with SLES.   Redhat only responded when their customers demanded that they step up,  and then they had to battle with SUSE to regain that lost share.   Now the same thing will happen with ARM support unless Redhat gets serious.  Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of smart people at Redhat who want to support ARM, but it is a significant investment that requires a solid business case.  And that business case apparently doesn’t yet convince Redhat’s executives to ante-up.  Meanwhile, Canonical is a more community-based organization, and are very close to the world’s largest cloud platform providers who are telling them they have a leadership opportunity with ARM.

So, Redhat,  I suggest you listen to the NEW customers (a.k.a. the cloudy types) who will move to ARM,  and not just to traditional IT customers who may not. It’s understandable that you don’t need to be there now, but don’t be too late or you may miss the boat!

How big is the ARM Server Market?

Much has been written and said about the possible ARM invasion of the datacenter.  The hype has been building lately as the first 64-bit implementations are being demonstrated at AMD and AppliedMicro, while Cavium should become more public sometime this summer when they get their very interesting chip ready for early sampling. Meanwhile, big players like Broadcom have development teams working on SOCs,  with  products likely in late 2015. Intel has responded to the potential threat with aggressively priced Atom SKUs to meet the need for “wimpy cores”…all while insisting that nobody really wants them.   Let’s look at how large this market may become. [Read more…]

AMD’s new K12 ARM project. No, its not Kindergarten!

 AMD announced last year that they were using ARM Cortex A57 as the basis for the Seattle SOC, some of us noted that AMD is the only vendor building a server SOC on the standard ARM Cores.  APMC, CAVM, BRCM, and others are heading down the custom core road, spending a lot more money to design their own chips with the hopes of out-perforing their competitors and building SOCs that have more differentiation than the  I/O and other “non-core” blocks.  A standard core is a great way to get into the market quickly, leveraging the common cores available from ARM Holdings.   But it is hard to differentiate on anything other than price and I/O if everyone can build a similar SOC for a few 10’s of millions of dollars.

As I consulted with industry players and investors,  I would often point out that AMD isn’t stupid;  they get it,  and are probably quietly working on their own ARM Cores,  leveraging the expertise and existing designs for GPUs, Memory, I/O, and Cores into a superior ARM server SOC part.  Well, today they stopped being quiet,  announcing their architectural license and intent to build a custom SOC 64-bit ARM SOC named “K12” in 2016.  Jim Keller, famous for his earlier chips at AMD and Apple,  is leading this effort.  Jim pointed out that they will be applying the DNA from their Bulldozer high-frequency part, so this is not another Wimpy ARM core, but is meant to compete with Brawny Xeon’s and will be positioned above their Cortex A57 parts.

AMD also announced Project Skybridge,  their plans to deliver a Seattle (A57-based) SOC that is pin-compatible with a future x86 processor on 20nm in 2015.  . The first generation of Skybridge products (ARM and x86) will focus on clients and embedded markets but AMD indicated that Skybridge is a framework for future designs.  Does this mean that AMD has NOT abandoned X86 servers?  While they did not announce a next generation X86 server part,  it is clearly a part of their ambidextrous  strategy. Pin-compatibility is cool because it allows AMD’s customers to reduce design costs to support their ambidextrous processor strategy.  They can amortize design costs across more volume and and lower costs and speed time to market.

So, AMD will do Standard ARM, Custom ARM, and x86 for servers, clients, and embedded.   Thats a lot of work, and a lot of risk.  But there may be enough synergies between these projects that they could pull it off and, once again, surprise the industry as they did in their 1st Opteron dual core chip, which quickly stole 25% of the market from Intel.  Jim Keller said that much of the new X86 and ARM SOCs are the same,   so they are already leveraging a lot of IP and engineering.

Who said processors were becoming boring!???


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