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Qualcomm ships ARM chip to challenge Intel in cloud data centers

Qualcomm ships ARM chip to challenge Intel in cloud data centersChipmaker Qualcomm's much-anticipated ARM-based Centriq 2400 product line, which started shipping commercially this week, is a worthy contender to break Intel's virtual monopoly in the server processor arena, where data center operators are thirsting to see competition to help bring down costs.

An unsolicited acquisition bid for Qualcomm from Broadcom, emerging server-chip competitors and legal wrangles involving Apple and other vendors, however, cast a bit of a shadow on prospects for the new chip.

Qualcomm revealed some impressive specs at an industry event in San Diego Wednesday, bringing out a a variety of big-time cloud, hardware and software providers to show support.

ARM-based chips, which up to now have dominated smartphones and tablets, have the potential to be power-efficient alternatives to Intel's x86-based systems. Qualcomm says that with a list price of US$1,995, the 48-core Centriq 2460 offers four-times better performance per dollar and up to 45%  better performance per watt than Intel's high-end Skylake processors, released earlier this year. Though these figures are based on Qualcomm-directed tests, they bode well.

"It should be competitive -- there is a lot of interest in ARM server processors because no two workloads are the same," said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

The high core count and focused throughput of the Centriq line has benefits especially for cloud workloads, web servers, and enterprise data centers doing different instantiations for their corporate users, McGregor noted.

"This is going to bring big changes to the way data centers are rolled out, and one of the things I love is we brought this power efficiency from the mobile space into the data center space and that’s something that the world needs," said Paul Jacobs, the executive chairman of Qualcomm, at the launch event.

Software built to run on Intel X86 chips have to be rewritten to run on the ARM instruction set, but a shift in the way applications are developed and data centers are built has already started to take place, helping to clear a path for new competitors, Jacobs noted.

Taking advantage of cloud services, Jabob said, users can procure virtual machines and get online in minutes, and this is changing the way apps are being developed.

"In the traditional IT environment apps and services are delivered through scaling up with bigger servers but in the cloud environment they are delivered through scaling out -- so, more and more servers, and the projections now are that 50% of servers are going to be deployed in cloud environments by 2020," Jabos said. "So what that means is that has really changed the design point for the server -- it creates this tremendous opportunity for Qualcomm."

It's not just mobile apps that are being developed for ARM architecture, but AI, IoT and data center software as well, Jacobs said.

The world's first 10nm server chip

The Centriq 2400 line is based on the ARMv8 64-bit architecture and Qualcomm has contracted with Samsung to use its 10-nanometer silicon fab process to manufacture the chips. On its part, Intel which will not be shipping chips manufactured with the 10nm process until later this year or early 2018. Qualcomm is boasting that the Centriq is the world's first 10nm server chip.

Generally, the smaller the manufacturing process technology, the greater the transistor density on processors, leading to cost- and performance efficiency.