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


  1. Karl,
    I agree with you about Google. I behooves them to understand the alternatives even if they stay their current course. There is one technical aspect of comparing Intel, Power and ARM performance, that may help predict where they go. The KPI used by most people to measure “Compute Power” is some form of “Internal Throughput Rate”. (ITR). MHZ, MIPS, SAPS, TPMs, and SPECintRate are all ITR Metrics. Value is actually delivered through External Throughput Rate which is ITR x Utilization. Utilization is driven by workload density (VMs , users count, application count or query load concurrency per hardware unit and by the usage pattern created by users.

    ITR is essentially threads/per unit times thread speed. And supported density is essentially cache per unit times thread speed. While the differentiation on ITR particularly per unit of cost may be favorable to ARM these days. The differences in supported density are not. It depends on whether Google needs a pure ITR engine or a combination of ITR and Density to successfully perform their work with good performance. In the former case ARM currently has a shot based on cost/performance but in the latter it won’t compare favorably to Intel. In the latter case Power will have an advantage over Intel. IBM’s z lives at the very high density end of the workload spectrum.

    It is interesting to me that each successive wave of parallel processing evolution drives the density down as it drives the thread count up. The answer for Google will come from an analysis of whether they can do their work with lower density on more slower threads. They were able to do so with Intel, but they may not be able to do so on the current ARM implementations. One thing in ARM’s favor is that the vast majority of Google’s Server Infrastructure is dedicated to “Search” and similar activities which are generally throughput oriented. Google may tolerate some inefficiency in the remainder in order to avoid the complexity of patch working as you suggest. I don’t know enough about the load to say for sure.

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