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Qualcomm's new chip may be too late as ARM server market fades

Agam Shah | Dec. 8, 2016
Qualcomm's Centriq 2400 server chips are based on ARM architecture, which hasn't set the server world on fire

In the past, low-power x86 and ARM chips have been tied to low-power cloud servers. But none of them worked out, and Intel's Xeon server chips -- which are consuming lower power and getting faster with each new generation -- still rule the market with a 90-plus percent market share. When ARM chips started emerging for cloud servers, Intel countered with low-power Atom server chips of its own, which halted ARM's momentum.

After that, ARM server chipmakers started dropping like flies. First, it was Calxeda, the pioneering company that bought ARM chips to servers, which shut its doors.

AMD, in one of its worst moves, abandoned x86 and bet its server future on ARM chips. But the company has now put ARM server chips on the backburner and will release the high-performance x86-based Zen server chips next year. Broadcom's future is uncertain, while Cavium recently started shipping server chips in volume. AppliedMicro is by far the most prolific ARM server chipmaker, but the company hasn't been successful in finding many customers.

Without a doubt, Qualcomm's Centriq 2400 is the best ARM server chip because of its integrated chipset and advanced manufacturing. The chip is the first server processor made using the 10-nanometer manufacturing process, Anand Chandrasekher, senior vice president and general manager of Qualcomm Datacenter Technologies, said in a blog entry.

Centriq is targeting competition on performance per watt, a metric that helps deliver more performance while consuming less power. The chip has a distinct advantage of having its storage and network interfaces integrated, for which Intel still needs an additional southbridge bus.

But contrary to Qualcomm's claims, the 10-nm may not be an advantage over Intel's server chips made using 14-nanometers, analysts said. Chip manufacturing and transistor density are much more complex than looking at the nanometer count, and Intel's 14-nm process may be better than the 10-nm process of the foundry where Qualcomm will have Centriq chips made.

Basically, chip manufacturers other than Intel haven't gotten full benefits of shrinking chip densities at each node. Foundries like Samsung -- where Qualcomm may have its Centriq chip made -- haven't seen true shrinks of chip size at each process node.

Brookwood said Intel's 14-nm process is perhaps equal to or better than the 10-nm process of Samsung. When Intel starts making 10-nm server chips, which could be as early as next year, it'll again jump a generation ahead of Qualcomm's Centriq 2400.

Realistically, the 16-nm process of TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co.) and the 14-nm process of Samsung and GlobalFoundries were a bit better than Intel's most recent 22-nm, but not competitive with Intel's current 14-nanometer, said David Kanter, an analyst for Real World Technologies.


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