Samsung laying groundwork for server chips, analysts say

Samsung could enter the low-power server market with chips based on ARM's 64-bit processors

By , IDG News Service |  Hardware

A number of IT heavyweights including Facebook, Dell, Hewlett-Packard and Red Hat are backing ARM servers. Dell and Hewlett-Packard currently offer servers based on 32-bit processors for testing purposes only, while companies like Boston and Penguin Computing sell ARM servers commercially.

The rise of ARM is seen as a threat to Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, which supply the x86 chips used in most servers today. The x86 chips are power hungry but considered faster for data-intensive applications such as databases and analytics. Intel will start shipping new low-power Atom chips for servers later this year to tackle ARM's threat. AMD has said it will offer servers that support both ARM and x86 architectures.

While the hype is heavy, the ARM server infrastructure is highly underdeveloped, analysts said. Current ARM chips with 32-bit addressing are not ready for servers, and issues relate to application compatibility and memory ceiling of 4GB. Chips with 64-bit ARM processors will bring larger memory support, virtualization and more error correction features considered important in servers.

The success of ARM in servers also lies on software support, said Mercury Research's McCarron. Many of the popular Linux builds in the future will support the 64-bit ARM instruction set, so the software development effort is well underway, McCarron said.

At last week's TechCon, Oracle, Cloudera and Citrix also announced plans to develop software for 64-bit ARM hardware.

Samsung's likely competitors will include Calxeda, Nvidia and AMD, which plan to offer 64-bit processors for servers. While Calxeda and AMD plan to incorporate proprietary networking and storage fabric to provide a highly integrated server chip, Samsung's approach will be more like Marvell, meaning it may offer a lower-cost commodity server chip by not integrating the fabric, Brookwood said.

But the analysts agreed that entering the server chip business could help Samsung.

"It's a lucrative market," McCarron said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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