The list of server chipmakers developing solutions based on ARM Holdings plc's proprietary reduced instruction set computer (RISC) architecture is growing. After announcements last year from the startup Calxeda -- an ARM Holdings subsidiary that is targeting low-power niche servers -- AMD rocked the market with last week's announcement that it would be making ARM-based Opterons, utilizing ARM's new 64-bit Cortex-A50 intellectual property core.
I. Samsung Next to the ARM Server Party?
Now analyst rumblings suggest that Samsung may be preparing a new line of 64-bit ARM server chips to be deployed in 2014.
The rumors come after Samsung licensed ARM's new Cortex-A53 and Cortex-A57 intellectual property cores. The decision to license the Cortex-A57 was particularly interesting, given that ARM Holdings indicated it was a higher-performance core aimed largely at the server market.
Currently, Samsung produces a line of smartphone and tablet processors under the brand name Exynos. These ARM-based chips are produced at Samsung's in-house fabs and almost entirely go into Samsung's own smartphone and tablet designs. But Samsung is diversifying away from just tablets/smartphones.
It's working on potential Windows RT devices and recently unveiled a $249 USD Exynos 5 Dual (5250) based "ChromeBook". The new ChromeBook is a joint effort with Google and runs Google's new "Aura" user interface.
II. Recent Hires Bring Server Savvy to Samsung
Simple financial figures would suggest ample incentive for Samsung to expand its efforts into server chips. While chipmaking tends to be a relatively low margin business, by nature, server chips sports some of the biggest profit returns in the industry, albeit being difficult to design.
More concrete clues to Samsung's potential aspirations come from the company's recruitment of Pat Patla to its growing team of chip design engineers at a new expansion of its Texas faculties. Mr. Patla was formerly the general manager and vice president of server processors at AMD.
According to Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64, Samsung's approach may target lower cost points than AMD's own ARM server offerings, but be more minimalist in features. Specifically, he says that while Calxeda and AMD are baking networking and storage interfacing features onto their system-on-a-chips, Samsung might opt for a more basic multi-core server system-on-a-chip, leaving the other features to dedicated pieces of the chipset.
Overall ARM appears very well positioned for the new wave in the server market. The overall market trend is towards ubiquitous virtualization. Virtualization is inherently well suited for processors with many small cores, as each core can then handle one or two virtual machines. Thus a multicore ARM chip enjoys certain inherent advantages over x86 chips based on more monolithic core designs, which in turn necessitate more complex load balance schemes.
Samsung already enjoys close relationships with top server makers Dell and HP, as it sells them DRAM and storage products. Dell is currently testing 32-bit ARM servers, which use special chips from Marvell, while HP is developing 32-bit servers with Calxeda.
Facebook is among the largest computing clients to have expressed interest in deploying an ARM server farm.