ARM aims at Intel’s stronghold with 64-bit standard

Intel hopes new baseline standard for ARM v8 chips will help it flex its muscles in the datacentre

At the Open Compute Summit in San Jose, California, British chip innovator ARM today launched a baseline standard for 64-bit servers that it hopes will help it encroach on Intel’s traditional territory, powering commodity hardware in the datacentre.

The Server Base System Architecture (SBSA) enters the fray with public support from key ARM hardware and software partners, including Microsoft, AMD, Dell, Citrix, Applied Micro, HP, RedHat, Suse, Canonical, Cavium and Texas Instruments.

The standard also has the backing of the Linaro Enterprise Group, a consortium of companies supporting the development of open source software for the ARM architecture, including Facebook and Samsung.

SBSA tries to make it easy for customers to implement ARM architectures while giving third-party partners such as system-on-chip (SoC) makers the scope to innovate and differentiate their products. 

We're bringing a lot of variety and innovation to this market. I'm sure Intel is paying very close attention

Jeff Underhill, ARM

Jeff Underhill, ARM’s director of server programmes, told Computer Weekly: “This is a foundational specification that will make it simple for OS developers to accommodate multiple SoC solutions, giving customers the freedom to choose the best platform and OS for the job.”

ARM’s business model is significantly different from that of Intel’s. Rather than manufacturing its own semiconductors and SoCs, it licenses its designs to third parties and relies on its ecosystem of hardware and software partners to bring them to market. As such, a standard like SBSA is key to ensuring ARM-based products can interoperate.

The company is also working with its partners to develop higher-level standards. “This is just the foundation. We already have a roadmap of things we want to add, addressing some of the higher levels of the software stack, for example,” said Underhill.

ARM architectures are currently employed in most smartphones and mobile devices due to their minimal power consumption, low cost and efficient processing. But the recent launch of 64-bit ARM v8 processors makes the platform a more viable option for energy-efficient, high-density server hardware.

“Although the ARM v7 32-bit architecture is deployed in servers today, having 64-bit solutions on the market broadens the scope of the of workloads we can address to include things like big data analysis and high-performance computing,” said Underhill.

He added that Applied Micro had already produced the first SBSA-compliant 64-bit silicon and AMD would be following suit shortly.

So does ARM think Intel should be worried? “Yes. This is a very real challenge to its dominance,” said Underhill. “With our ecosystem, we’re bringing a lot of variety and innovation to this market. I’m sure Intel is paying very close attention and will no doubt want to defend its position vigorously.”

Clive Longbottom, founder and service director at analyst Quocirca, agreed Intel was unlikely to cede market share without a fight. “If ARM really starts to make any sort of play into the datacentre proper with v8, expect Intel to up the capabilities of it’s own low-voltage Atom chips to fight ARM at a very strong level,” he said.

In the history of compute, smaller, lower-cost, higher-volume CPUs have always won. There is no exception to this

Andrew Feldman, AMD

Speaking on day one of the Open Compute Summit, Andrew Feldman, general manager and corporate vice-president of AMD, predicted that by 2019 ARM would command a quarter of the server market. 

“In the history of compute, smaller, lower-cost, higher-volume CPUs have always won. There is no exception to this,” he said.

“Last year, more than eight billion ARM CPUs were shipped, compared to about 13 million x86 server CPUs. This leads me to believe that ARM CPUs will play a monstrous role in the building of our future datacentres.”

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