The talk about ARM-based servers pushing their way into the datacenter has been going for almost a decade now, during which time we have seen companies like Samsung drop their interest before they really got going on it and others like AMD getting an ARM-based chip out but then turning their attention to other initiatives.
We have also seen vendors like Cavium and Applied Micro get chips to market with some levels of adoption. Top system OEMs like Dell, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Lenovo, and Cray are using these chips to various degrees in commercially available or test servers. And the initial enthusiasm and boasts of prior ARM executives have given way to the quieter optimism of more recent officials who have overseen the grinding work needed to keep the ambitious efforts moving forward.
And other the past two years, there has been some buzz around Qualcomm’s entrance onto the scene, becoming what one industry analyst here at ARM’s TechCon 2017 show called the best bet to be able to plant the ARM flag in the datacenter in a significant way, due to the company’s size, financial resources, and engineering chops. In recent months, Qualcomm has been active in talking about the company’s Centriq 2400 server system-on-a-chip (SoC) in the runup to the expected upcoming release of the product, conducting sessions at both the Hot Chips show in August and the Linley Processor Conference earlier this month to share more details about the processor. And so it was that Satadal Bhattacharjee, director of product management at Qualcomm’s Data Center Technologies group, spoke at a crowded session about Centriq and the datacenter during a TechCon show that put much of its focus on the internet of things (IoT).
Bhattacharjee noted that company engineers had spent a lot of time during the previous shows going through the details of the Centriq 2400, a 10 nanometer SoC that is aimed primarily at cloud providers and similar top-tier hyperscale companies, and while he touched on the key technological features of the chip, much of the talk was spent outlining the market opportunities being created by shifts in the industry toward mobility, the cloud and – yes – the IoT, and why Qualcomm is the company most capable of exploiting those opportunities to carve a path for ARM deep into the datacenter.
“The scale to which datacenters are growing … and the billions of devices that are coming out, most of those devices, including our phones, need processing that has to be done at the datacenter,” he said, pointing to millions of queries constantly hitting Google and the requests being put to digital assistants like Amazon’s Alexa. “It’s not happening on the device. Most of this is happening on the server side. So what does it mean? If there are so many devices coming out – we’re talking about trillions of devices – then the datacenters have to pack a lot more servers. There is a physical limitation in how many servers you can pack within a particular rack, so there is a strong desire to get more out of that rack space and more compute from the power limit that is there.”
That is opportunity before Qualcomm, Bhattacharjee said. Cloud providers and top-tier businesses need servers that are highly power efficient, high performance and flexible to handle the increasingly large number of workloads that are coming into their datacenters. Centriq 2400 is aimed at those use cases, where similar levels of performance can be delivered by a rack system powered by a single Qualcomm SoC when compared to an equivalent system running two Skylake Xeon chips from Intel, he said. Qualcomm was able to create such capabilities in Centriq, whose design can be seen below, because unlike Intel’s server chips, which evolved from the company’s PC processor, Centriq was based on the performance and power efficiency inherent in its mobile SoCs.
The Next Platform has explored in great detail the technologies and features that have gone into Centriq, and Bhattacharjee touched on many of them. The SoC’s “Falkor” CPU core is fully compliant with ARM’s ARMv8 design, though Centriq is the fifth custom design from Qualcomm engineers. It includes unique features from Qualcomm around such areas as quality-of-service, storage, security and bandwidth, and offers up to 48 single-threaded cores, unlike the hyperthreading that’s found in Intel chips. Bhattacharjee explained that in talking with cloud providers, they were happy enough with the number of cores available in Centriq to not want to risk the performance hit that can come with multi-threading. That said, Qualcomm is looking at adding more cores and threads in future generations, he said. The chip maker has developed two-core modules that officials call “duplexes, that share few components outside of power management and L2 cache, and communicate via ring interconnect links. The ring design – the Qualcomm System Bus – also connects the modules to L3 cache, main memory and various controllers. There’s also memory compression capabilities on the DDR4 memory and server-level power management attributes, integrated south bridge capabilities, 32 lanes of PCIe capacity and network support from 10 to 100 Gigabit Ethernet. Qualcomm has developed two reference architectures – both 1U rack systems, one a single-socket and another a dual-socket – based on Open Compute Project designs.
Bhattacharjee admitted that the Centriq 2400 isn’t a one-size-fits-all piece of silicon. It’s good for the workloads that hyperscalers see, but not as strong for many enterprise or high performance computing (HPC) applications. “For the Centriq 2400, the focus has been on the cloud customers,” he said.
Shifts in the tech industry are helping to open up the datacenter, which is dominated by Intel’s X86-based processors, he said. Not only in fast-growing need for more compute power and greater power efficiency, but also in the transition from licensed software to open-source software (which give customers greater control of their software environments and eases the migration from one chip architecture to another), from manufacturing processes based on laptops to those based on mobile technologies, and from OEMs to ODMs in the supply chain.
“IT consumption is changing from centralized, on-premises servers to more cloud-based systems, and that trend started quite a few years back and it’s not stopping as more and more applications have been shifted to the cloud model,” Bhattacharjee said.
There are still more details to come, such as chip speeds and release dates, but Bhattacharjee said the company is in it for the long haul. The roadmap includes three generations – the Centriq 2400, which is going into general production, another in development and a third in the architectural design phase – and the company has the resources to fund the work, which puts it in better position than some of its smaller rivals in the ARM server space, he said. Whether all that translates into significant market gains against Intel in the datacenter is unclear. Intel during this time has not stood still, improving both the performance and power consumption of its server chips, and more than 98 percent of servers that ship are powered by Intel processors. However, there is a desire among many businesses for a viable alternative to Intel to help drive innovation and lower prices, and the hyperscalers Qualcomm is pursuing have showed they are not shy about adopting new technologies if it means lower costs and more performance.