AMD Finally Gets ARM-Based Server Chip to Market

by Jeffrey Burt

The chip maker launches its delayed Opteron A1100 SoC into a data center market that officials say is now more ready for ARM-based processors.

Advanced Micro Devices is giving its resurgent data center ambitions a boost with the official launch of the vendor's long-awaited ARM-based chip aimed at servers, storage devices and networking equipment.

The company had been producing the Opteron A1100 systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) for a couple of months, but on Jan. 14, executives announced that that processor family was shipping in volume. Now the questions will focus on how ready the market is for ARM-based data center processors, despite several years of hype and development around the chip and the surrounding ecosystem.

ARM executives and many of its chip-making partners for years have been talking about bringing the low-power architecture to the data center and offering an alternative to Intel, which controls more than 95 percent of the market. Vendor officials and industry analysts have said that businesses are looking for options for a range of reasons, from accelerating innovation and offering protection against supply issues to driving down prices.

In addition, ARM and its chip partners aren't the only companies looking to provide alternatives to Intel. IBM's OpenPower Foundation also wants to offer options to vendors. Another challenge will be Intel itself, which has worked to drive up performance and reduce power consumption in its server chips, and offers low-power Atom SoCs for systems. In addition, the company last year launched its first Xeon SoC aimed at hyperscale data centers.

However, the demand for Intel alternatives is there, and it's that demand that will help ARM chip away at Intel's dominant market share, according to Scott Aylor, corporate vice president and general manager of AMD's Enterprise Solutions unit. The Operton A1100 "is about bringing ARM to the data center, but it's also about bringing choice to the data center," Aylor told eWEEK. "The industry is really hungry for choice."

AMD wants to be the company that drives that choice. The company, which has spent most of its life in the large shadow of Intel, is making an aggressive push into the data center as part of a larger strategy to regain its financial footing and return to sustainable profitability. A key part of that effort is giving OEMs and customers a broad range of options, including choices of x86- or ARM-based processors that offer a broad range of capabilities in everything from graphics to connectivity.

"It's really about having the right product for the right workload," Aylor said.

The market for ARM-based data center chips is still a nascent one. A few companies, such as Applied Micro and Cavium, already have ARM processors on the market, and have gotten some traction in networking and storage equipment. Other vendors, including Qualcomm and Broadcom, also are developing ARM-based data center chips. In addition, Applied Micro's X-Gene SoC—the company unveiled the third generation of the chip in November 2015—also is being used in one of Hewlett Packard Enterprise's (HPE's) Moonshot sever modules.

However, other major server vendors are still taking a wait-and-see approach. Dell has ARM-based systems that can be put together when requested, and Lenovo is testing such servers. At ARM's TechCon 2015 show last year, other vendors—including Penguin Computing and Gigabyte—announced systems powered by Cavium's ThunderX SoCs, and Lakshmi Mandyam, director of server systems and ecosystems at ARM, cautioned against making assumptions based on what is known publicly, suggesting there is a lot going on behind the scenes.

"I'm comfortable with where we are at this point," Mandyam told journalists and analysts at TechCon. "There are a lot of proofs-of-concept going on with ARM."

There also have been some high-profile wins, including PayPal and Baidu, which are looking to bring AR-based systems into their environments. During the TechCon show, a Morgan Stanley official said the financial services firm was testing an application on a Cavium-based system, and HPE and EMC said they were building ARM-based storage systems and testing the SoCs in their labs. ARM is running its ARM.com Website on ARM-based systems.

AMD's Opteron A1100—formerly code-named Seattle—was due out last year, but the vendor delayed the launch as it focused on its upcoming Zen chip architecture. In addition, the delay enabled AMD to allow the ecosystem around ARM chips—such as software and middleware—to mature, according to Dan Bounds, senior director of data center products and enterprise solutions at AMD.

Both Bounds and Aylor said the ecosystem and chips themselves had reached a point where they are ready to compete in the data center. Ubuntu and Red Hat offer Linux operating systems for ARM, there are hypervisors like Xen and KVM, and groups like Linaro have built out the software offerings.

AMD's A1100 is based on ARM's Cortex-A57 platform, and the portfolio will offer three SoCs that will feature four to eight cores, with up to 4MB of Level 2 cache and 8MB of L3 cache. They include two 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports, eight lanes of PCI-Express Gen 3 and 14 SATA-3 ports. In addition, the SoC includes a co-processor that leverages ARM's TrustZone security technology for such tasks as authentication and encryption.

AMD officials are aiming the Seattle chip at a number of use cases in the data center, including Web serving, networking, storage and software development. A number of vendors already are developing systems based on the SoC. SoftIron currently sells the OverDrive 3000 server, while BeaconWorks is working on a number of software-defined storage products. AMD is working with Silver Lining Systems to integrate the vendor's fabric technology into dense server designs powered by the Opteron A1100 for an array of workloads, from streaming to cloud storage to hyperscale data centers.

AMD also has on its road map a data center SoC that will include a custom ARM core. Dubbed K12, it is scheduled to launch next year.

This article was originally published on Thursday Jan 14th 2016
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