A significant number of chip companies are developing server-class system-on-chips based on ARM architecture these days in hope to grab a part of the lucrative server market with their low-power cost-efficient chips. Many analysts also believe that ARM architecture could disrupt server market. But Patrick Gelsinger, chief exec of VMware who spent thirty years designing chips at Intel Corp., remains skeptical about ARM in servers.
“We are skeptical that chips [from] outside of Intel and Advanced Micro Devices’ x86 [architecture] will find much uptake outside of niche use cases. Even if you could drop the power consumption of x86 by 25%, it would not make that much of a difference. Chip architectures don’t change because of 25% power improvements. You have got to have 10x power improvements to make that happen,” said Pat Gelsinger at EMC and VMware strategic forum for institutional investors.
ARM and its partners target so-called micro-servers, low-power servers for web applications, with their microprocessors. ARM faces an uphill battle, as the majority of server software is written for x86 architecture and both server users as well as server software vendors should have a motivation to transit to ARM and develop for ARM. Shifting from x86 to ARM will also be difficult for legacy products.
Shipments this year of micro servers are forecast to reach 291 000 units, up 230% from 88 000 units in 2012. Shipments of micro servers commenced in 2011 with just 19 000 units. However, shipments by the end of 2016 will rise to some 1.2 million units. The penetration of micro servers compared to total server shipments amounted to a negligible 0.2% in 2011. But by 2016, the machines will claim a penetration rate of more than 10% – a stunning fiftyfold jump, according to a report from IHS iSuppli.
Intel first unveiled the micro server concept and reference design in 2009, ostensibly to block rival ARM from entering the field. In 2011 AMD acquired SeaMicro, a micro-server pioneer.
ARM, however, is gaining greater support from software and OS vendors, which could potentially put pressure on Intel and AMD in the coming years, IHS believes.