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An employee shows off one of SeaMicro's pricey Intel Atom-based servers.  (Source: Venture Beat)
Intel says that ARM cores may gain some ground in the laptop space but will not challenge it in servers

Facing an onslaught of ultra-power efficient, highly clocked, multi-core ARM CPUs from the likes of QualcommNVIDIA, and Texas Instruments, Intel, the world's largest CPU maker, has plenty to worry about.

But it's seemed remarkably unconcerned; stating that its smartphone chips will equal ARM chips in power performance and beat them in computing power by later this year.  Now Kirk Skaugen, general manager of Intel’s data center unit has gone on the record at a Morgan Stanley conference to say that Intel's server business is in no danger from ARM.

Like mobile devices, power efficiency is a key concern for servers.  Businesses keenly watch how to minimize the power they use per unit of computing power.

But Intel is convinced that businesses won't be interested in ARM servers, as it admits that its own efforts to put Atom systems-on-a-chip on servers was met with disappointment.  States Mr. Skaugen:

We’ve been out talking about Atom and servers for... And candidly, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in that architecture in a broad sense. I could see if you go out four to five years maybe 10% of the total market, give or take a couple percent, could be interested in such an architecture.

He backtracks a bit acknowledging that for some customers a low-power solution like Atom (or ARM) would be a good solution.  And he says it’s a tempting one to try to sell as the margins are bigger.  He explains:

What SeaMicro has done is they’ve put 512 Atoms into a 10U form factor. So if everybody in the world took a Xeon and bought an Atom because their servers were underutilized that would be a bad thing for Intel and our OEMs. That’s not what we hear from the customers on what they’re interested in doing. What they’re interested in doing is getting, for example, for dedicated hosting — let’s say they have $140,000 to spend, they’re wanting to know how many hosting nodes or how many customers they can host. So what SeaMicro has done is they’ve said, hey, I’m going to sell a $148,000 Atom server, they put 512 Atoms into a 10U and they say you can buy either I think 89 one-socket Xeons for the same price, 1U pizza box machines, so you can buy 89 1U’s or you can buy the single system which has 512 nodes in it…

Atom makes good margin for Intel; if the workload actually works that’s incredibly good.

So if some customers are interested, why does he see them picking Atom over ARM cores?  He says compatibility is the key issue:

Now what’s the challenge that ARM has in that same form factor? Well, it has an instruction set issue. So if you’re going to do hosting what application do you host? And what is an application porting effort — we did application porting with Itanium, it took us about 10 years. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars to port about 14,000 applications. ARM has to port for hosting all those applications over. Second challenge is the A9 and the A15 as we know it are 32-bit processors. Microsoft only supports 64-bit operating systems today. So I’d encourage you to go ask Microsoft what their position is on 32-bit operating systems. But I think they’re pretty firm on their 64-bit. So it’s an instruction set issue as well as a 64-bit issue. Everything we do in servers for real servers will be 64-bit.

Of course, he's largely right on both points -- low computing power chips will have trouble gaining traction with many server customers, and there are major compatibility issues holding back ARM in both the laptop and server markets.  

But with Microsoft migrating its core code base to natively support ARM, that could be changing.  Holding up compatibility as a barrier to embracing a superior hardware product is valid to some degree, but in the long run such barriers are invariably eliminated.  Like it or not, Intel may have more of a fight on its hands in a number of markets than it's willing to admit, and its rosy outlook for the smartphone industry may be met with a dose of reality if it proves unable deliver the superior smartphone chips its promises to be shipping by the end of the year.

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Some good points, some crazy
By SKiddywinks on 3/1/2011 6:48:08 PM , Rating: 1
I think he has a point in ARM having trouble making a large dent in Intel's server business (I'm sure in some cases ARM will be the better decision and will get some business, just not loads of it).

But I also think he is smoking some awesome shit if he thinks an x86 CPU is ever going to beat ARM in efficiency. Ok, maybe not ever (future manufacturing processes might make the x86 issues a moot point, and then you are just left with more performance than ARM), but I definitely do not see them beating ARM chips, which are designed from the ground up for smartphones, in anything resembling the near future.

RE: Some good points, some crazy
By sxr7171 on 3/1/2011 9:56:08 PM , Rating: 2
I don't think I know the real story, but what I've been led to believe is that both x86 as well as the Windows OS has taken on a lot of baggage over the years. Just a bunch of different ways to improve performance on what ultimately is based on the thinking of 15-20 years ago.

Smartphones are the future personal computers.

RE: Some good points, some crazy
By charrytg on 3/2/2011 5:26:22 PM , Rating: 2
Well regardless, I believe this article is more on the topic of competing in the server market, not the personal computer market, where smartphones may be the future, but servers will never be a part of. As far as servers go, I don't think intel has a lot to fear from ARM at the moment. But between ARM and Nvidia's GPGPU computing, they should at least keep an eye out to prevent losing opportunities in the server market.

I've heard people say that the x86 instructions cripple processors in terms of energy efficiency, but that was transistor sizes shrink, this is less of a problem as apparently the part of the chip that handles these instructions will take up less % of the chip each shrink. There may be more to the struggle intel is having with power efficiency, but I'm not qualified to say.

At the very least, intel seems to have a lead over others when it comes to what manufacturing node they use, so perhaps if they really wanted to make a big push against ARM, they may be able to, but perhaps they just aren't pouring enough money in to it. If they half-ass it, they may as well just be throwing away money since the competition is expirienced for the purpose.

By SimpleLance on 3/2/2011 1:41:13 AM , Rating: 2
I definitely do not see them beating ARM chips, which are designed from the ground up for smartphones

ARM was designed for PCs (Acorn Archimedes PC), but lost to X86 PCs. But being power-efficient, they survived in the embedded device market.

Now, the newest generation of ARM is so unlike the early ARM (ARM2). They have become more like Intel's new chips. Super scalar, pipe-lined, branch predictor (ARM8), large cache, SIMD, etc.

RE: Some good points, some crazy
By ET on 3/2/2011 2:40:56 AM , Rating: 2
I think that Intel can deliver on the low power promise. x86 compatibility will always add some baggage, but the more complex the chip becomes (and high end ARM ones are becoming quite complex), the less effect that added baggage should have. Intel has the thousands of engineers and the advanced processes to be able to compete effectively.

That said, I think that x86 will just not have a real advantage in the mobile market in the long run. Low power x86 is still useful these days for Windows compatibility on low power devices, but that compatibility doesn't mean much for mobile phone apps, and currently Windows isn't that great for tablets, so it'd be hard to convince people to go that way.

“So far we have not seen a single Android device that does not infringe on our patents." -- Microsoft General Counsel Brad Smith

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