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27 November 2019

Nuvia is the latest chip start-up to promise to shake up the cloud market

Every so often a new chip provider emerges to try to challenge Intel in the server world, often touting credentials in power and cost efficiency, both essential to cloud economics. In the past, these challengers have often used ARM cores, though innovators like Smoothstone have often fallen by the wayside. The latest crop of server processor start-ups are tending to use alternatives to ARM, the latest example being Nuvia, which has unveiled its plans to design a CPU server core and associated system-on-chip (SoC) to support high performance cloud applications such as vRAN and AI.

Among the founders are Gerard Williams, CEO of the new venture, who was Apple’s chief CPU architect for almost a decade, and prior to that, an ARM fellow for a similar length of time. The company’s SVP of silicon engineering, Manu Gulati, was lead SoC architect for Google’s consumer hardware unit, and before that, was also at Apple. The third member of the leadership team is John Bruno, SVP of system engineering, who was also a system architect at Google, and held previous roles at Apple and AMD.

Nuvia’s pitch is that it will be able to achieve the low power consumption of ARM, but with no performance trade-offs. However, it is not providing any details about how its new core will achieve this. The company is promising an entirely new server core, though it is not yet providing any details or precise targets, despite promises to deliver a “step change” in performance rather than incremental improvements over current designs.

Jon Carville, head of marketing, said the plan was to focus heavily on power efficiency as well as performance, and to “take some of the lessons that were applied in the mobile SoC world around those thermally-constrained envelopes, but then add a layer of performance to that. That hasn’t been seen before in a data center perspective …to be able to achieve that step function of performance improvement that those hyperscalers need because of all the data they’re processing and transacting, within that constrained power envelope, because we’re not going to be able to get a lot more power into those data centers.”

Nuvia has raised $53m in initial funding, in a round co-led by Silicon Valley investors Capricorn Investment Group, Dell Technologies Capital, Mayfield and WRVI Capital, with additional participation from Nepenthe LLC. But it will need to raise far more, in order to produce a commercial chip, especially in the timescales to pre-empt the next wave of innovations by Intel, the webscalers themselves, and by ARM partners such as Marvell and Huawei HiSilicon.