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Google considers ARM chips for server farms: ARM shares rise

by Mark Tyson on 13 December 2013, 19:30

Tags: ARM, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), Intel (NASDAQ:INTC)

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Speculation that Google is considering using the ARM architecture to build its own server chips was reported by Bloomberg last night. The information was apparently shared by "a person with knowledge of the matter" who "asked not to be identified because the matter is private". If the source was accurate, and the decision goes through, it could be a move that would threaten Intel’s server market dominance as Google, being its fifth largest customer, accounts for over four per cent of Intel’s revenue.

ARM, The Cambridge-based microchip designer, licenses its designs to chipmakers predominantly in the mobile phone and tablet markets, to firms such as Samsung and Qualcomm. But we have seen the firm trying to step towards and compete with Intel’s business interest in chips used in servers (alongside AMD) as ARM licensees work on various server-class designs.

After Bloomberg's report last night, we saw ARM's shares climb steadily during the morning as the news sunk in, peaking at 1,028p, nearly 5.7 per cent up by 9.30am today and closed at 3 per cent up, just over £10 a share, at 1,003.50p. The firm, which receives royalty on the sale of every chip that uses its technology, has declined to comment on the report. But a deal with Google will certainly speed up ARM's efforts to excel in the server market.

"It is unclear if Google actually wants to go ahead with such an expensive design process when ARM-based semiconductor suppliers exist, or if it is putting this speculation in the market to reduce prices of both Intel and ARM-based processors," commented Janardan Menon from Liberum discussing the possibility. However Bloomberg's source believes that if Google uses its own designs, they could “better manage the interactions between hardware and software”. Although it was highlighted that no official decisions have been made and plans could still change.

HEXUS Forums :: 8 Comments

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So to sum that up: “Internet giant with whole business staked on technology leadership is doing research and trialling everything in the marketplace and exploring alternatives” - massive shock. Oh no wait, it's not a massive shock at all. Throwing together a team to test ARM chips in servers is nothing for Google, they must already have a technology team for testing the bleeding edge gear and a lot of their kit is custom or semi-custom now. Frankly I'd be surprised if they *weren't* testing ARM servers along with all other micro-servers, Atom based, SeaMicro etc. Big news would be one of the internet giants declaring their tests had led them to actually deploying a whole data floor powered by something else other than Xeon/Opteron.
Going to totally and utterly agree with kingpotnoodle's post above - and Google aren't the only folks considering a move to ARM…

According to the ZDNet article "HP boldly goes hyperscale with launch of new Moonshot range“ there's already an ARM option been launched for HP's ”Moonshot" servers. Actually kudos to the ZDNet article - it's quite good.

Given the focus on getting datacentre power costs down, the move to low power chips seems common sense, although - personally speaking - I'd go for the server consolidation via VM's route since that means you can accommodate a whole range of workloads.
VM may not make sense when you have such big requirements. What I mean is that if Google have say 1000 servers caching search results or gmail etc. only a small % of those will not be constantly busy. So the load-balancing might only come in for some, for example:
  • 10,000 for search stuff
  • 10,000 for gmail
  • 10,000 for gdrive
  • plus
  • 10,000 multi-purpose machines for load balancing

So in that case only the multi-purpose ones would need to be VM capable; for those Google could use Xeons while for the main 24/7 load they could use their own custom ARM core.

This assumes there is an actual case for them developing their own cores (which might as well be MIPS since they could afford to buy the whole company then). Maybe they have some specific instructions or architectural modification which would suit their load very well.

Of course, Google are big enough to get Intel to incorporate any features they might require. But then again, any Intel solution means feeding Intel's margins. If in a few years process nodes stagnate (maybe 7nm or so), then eventually it will no longer make sense to go with Intel for their node advantage. Imagine if AMD Athlon64 vs Intel P4 had happened with them both on the same node…
I'm guessing another factor could be Google putting their core algorithms into hardware, which they can do with a custom ARM SoC design, but which isn't possible with an Intel SoC design.

For Google, the core consideration is presumably power consumption, as their data centres are so large. So ARM makes a lot of sense there already, but Intel do have low power server Atom offerings … so it could be the ability to put core algorithms, or parts of algorithms, into hardware, as an ARM co-processor, that is the difference.
Makes sense, my guess is they move there web servers over first as this would be the logical workload, and then look at the rest.

Software is the problem here, Intel keeps making faster and faster chips and software does not keep up.

Not even us gamers benefit even more, I bet there is very little FPS difference in games between a Sandy bridge quad core and a Haswell quad core.

Intel needs to beat ARM at there own game if they are to keep market dominance.

As a Brit though I say, Go ARM!