Qualcomm has made the long-awaited foray into the ARM-based server chipsets and the trade media is presenting its 24-core SoC prototype as a challenger to Intel’s hegemony in the cloud server market. Is it so?
Qualcomm has offered few details. But the question is why Qualcomm would aim for such a highly competitive market where Intel is entrenched with software and tools ecosystem built around its Xeon chips. Large semiconductor outfits like AMD, Applied Micro, Broadcom, and Cavium had little success in their quest for ARM chips for the server market.
Qualcomm’s server SoC was tested in a live demo running on full software stack
The announcement that Qualcomm made a few days ago offers some hints. Read Xilinx and FPGA. The demonstration of Qualcomm’s 24-core server chipset prototype came with two supplementary bytes. Xilinx will build FPGA-accelerated workloads on the new server chipset while Mellanox will design network cards like Ethernet and InfiniBand for the new server platform.
It’s worth remembering Microsoft’s white paper a couple of years ago in which the software giant claimed that FPGA add-in cards led to a 40-fold increase in search speeds of its Bing search engine. Many industry watchers believe that FPGA’s potential in powering the big data has been a key factor in Intel’s recent acquisition of Altera.
So FPGA could well be the dark horse in the future server chips market. Does that mean it’s going to be Intel plus Altera against Qualcomm allied with Xilinx in the data center market? And that will make Qualcomm more than a smartphone chipmaker. Right?
The Wireless Connection
Will Strauss, Principal Analyst at Forward Concepts, says that Qualcomm is going after the market it knows best: wireless. “The future wireless networks will require Cloud RAN solutions that move baseband processors from several cellular base stations to fiber-connected central servers with baseband processing for many channels.”
Cloud RAN or C-RAN stands for Centralized-Radio Access Network. It’s a disruptive new technology that formulates cellular network architecture based on cloud computing and accommodates 2G, 3G, 4G and future wireless communication standards. C-RAN requires server development, and according to Strauss, Xilinx FPGAs will perform the blazingly fast DSP functions necessary for such centralized baseband operations.
Strauss: ‘Qualcomm is not going after the server market’
Strauss writes in Forward Concepts’ newsletter that China is the biggest market for C-RAN and Intel is already engaged in prototype development with mobile operators in China and Korea. One of the mobile carriers in China told Strauss that it likes the idea of ARM servers as opposed to Intel’s X86 servers for C-RAN because of much lower power consumption.
However, the promise of low power associated with ARM technologies alone may not be sufficient for Qualcomm in the C-RAN server market. The San Diego, California–based chipmaker will probably also count on its wireless DNA and a lot of connections that it has in China.
Qualcomm’s ARM-based server chipset isn’t ready for release yet, and further updates about it are expected next year.