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14 March 2016

Qualcomm builds developer base for its server chips

Having given the cause of ARM-based server chips a shot in the arm when it unveiled its first products late last year, Qualcomm is now turning to the software side of the platform. Creating a broad developer ecosystem is almost as big a challenge, when seeking to infiltrate Intel’s most strongly defended territory, as getting the processors right. Qualcomm has announced agreements with Red Hat and Linaro to ease this process.

It is working with Red Hat to port a version of the software firm’s Enterprise Linux Server for ARM Development Preview, to the new Qualcomm chips, which do not currently have a firm shipment date but are being tested with potential customers and with cloud providers, reportedly including Google.

The US company has said it will decide on the exact timeframe according to market conditions, though in the meantime it has been putting significant efforts into building the surrounding platform, not least with its new server-oriented joint venture in China, Guizhou Huaxintong Semiconductor Technology (GHST).

The Enterprise Linux Server port will include drivers and firmware which comply with Qualcomm’s server chip specifications as well as ARM’s Server Base System Architecture (SBSA). The latter defines standardized hardware features across any server processor based on the ARM cores. The cooperation could give Red Hat a headstart should Qualcomm start to sell its new chips in significant numbers, for instance with a Google deal. Other Linux distributions which run on ARM-based servers include Ubuntu and CentOS, but these have not yet been optimized for Qualcomm’s platform.

A server based on Qualcomm chips and running Red Hat was demonstrated last week in Bangkok, at the Linaro Connect conference. Linaro is a consortium of companies which provides standardized software elements – such as boot firmware and power management – for ARM server platforms, and ports key software, including Android L, to the chips.

It recently launched a cloud service enabling ARM developers to write and test applications for server chips from Qualcomm, Cavium, AMD and Huawei. These are the big hitters of the nascent ARM server space, and Cavium in particular has shown off a range of designs targeting applications such as Cloud-RAN servers and graphics engines.

Most of the ARM-based players are not attempting to go head-to-head with Intel in its core territory in the data center, but are instead focusing on the newer segments such as cloud and telecoms infrastructure. ARM-based chips are certainly no longer just about micro-servers, as they were in the 32-bit days of pioneers like Smoothstone, but most suppliers would rather work around Intel for now, especially in platforms which are highly reliant on power efficiency.

New approaches to data are creating high growth in new categories of equipment which are more open to non-x86 architectures than the established ecosystems – and which prioritize low cost and power consumption. Key target markets, then, include offload engines for compute acceleration, mass storage and Cloud-RAN, and scalable platforms optimized for cloud applications like infrastructure-as-a-service, NFV, big data analytics or machine learning.

The new Linaro service gives developers remote access to bare metal ARM servers located in Cambridge, UK and Austin, Texas, giving them a low cost way to test their software on a range of 64-bit platforms without having to buy hardware. A Chinese service will be added around the middle of the year. Developers can port open source software to their own clouds, and access virtualization, analytics and other tools.

Linaro chief George Grey said: “This project is probably going to last a couple of years until ARM is widely adopted in commercial providers.” This initiative is broader in scope than existing affordable options for ARM server developers, which include developer boards like LeMaker’s, which costs $299 and runs AMD’s processor; and Dell’s cloud service, which has been available since 2012 and enables developers to access a remote ARM server to develop code.

Qualcomm introduced its first system-on-chip for the server market in October,partnering with Xilinx for the accompanying FPGAs. Xilinx CEO Moshe Gavrielov said tight integration between its FPGAs and Qualcomm’s new server CPUs promised an improvement in performance per watt between 10fold and 50fold. The other partner is Mellanox, which is in the process of acquiring EZchip, an innovator in high end network processing. Mellanox will provide Ethernet and Infiniband interconnects optimized for scalable server platforms.