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Servers equipped with ARM processors will gradually emerge in the marketplace from a near-nonexistent base, in the process furnishing stepped-up competition to reigning kingpin Intel Corp. in the server semiconductor market, according to a new report from IHS, a leading market tracker.
ARM server shipments will reach more than 5% penetration of the total server space by 2017, up from virtually zero last year. The growing share of ARM servers is in line with continued bright prospects for the overall server market, forecast to reach 13.1 million units by 2017. That number represents a five-year compound annual shipment growth of 6.5% from 9.8 million units in 2012. This year alone, total server shipments are projected to reach 10.1 million or 3.1% growth, with an even stronger 9.9% expansion forecast next year.
The overall server numbers include all segments of the industry including entry-level machines, enterprise servers, mainframes and supercomputers, blade servers, micro servers and cloud servers.
Within this active market, ARM server shipments are expected to enjoy their first big year in 2014, IHS predicts. Demand for low-power-consumption processors, along with the maturation of the server ecosystem, will help boost the penetration of ARM chips in the server industry, traditionally the stronghold of Intel.
Intel has long been the only force in servers, with chips and software developed with partners specifically made to support Intel’s x86 server architecture. Over the years Intel has also launched a variety of aggressive server initiatives to maintain its dominance while hoping at the same time to prevent ARM from making any sort of entry into the market.
In 2009, for instance, Intel unveiled its initial concept and reference design for micro servers, which have since evolved to become part of the infrastructure for cloud storage systems. As recently as June this year, Intel was in the news when the company revealed its second generation of 64-bit Atom processors for more powerful computing server capabilities.
ARM, however, has not stood still. While the ARM server market is in its infancy, many new developments are taking place that will help the rival mechanism build a viable ecosystem. In particular, ARM is gaining more support from chip makers as well as software and operating system vendors. As a result, ARM-based servers will become gradually more competitive and will put increasing pressure on the overall server trade – which is also Intel’s most profitable business.
Still, it will not be easy for ARM-based servers in the short term to wrestle share away from x86 incumbents. ARM-based server share will remain at less than 1% of total server unit shipments by year-end, with brighter prospects next year after the release of ARM’s 64-bit Cortex A50-series chips.
The switch to a 64-bit architecture is significant, because commercially available ARM chips today are in the 32-bit architecture incompatible for the most part with existing server infrastructure. Shifting from x86 to ARM is not easy for current ecosystems – and difficult, to say the least, for legacy products. ARM’s new 64-bit chip, however, will expose it to a broader base of microprocessor vendors and server original equipment manufacturers (OEM).
For the central processing unit (CPU), ARM is working at present with players like Calxeda from Texas; as well as with Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. and Marvell Technology, all three from California. ARM is also partnering with server OEMs such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Taiwan’s Mitac International.
And even though there are no specific plans or projects at the moment, IHS believes Nvidia, Samsung and Qualcomm are capable of providing ARM-based CPUs for the server segment when the market becomes more mature.