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Forthcoming ARM-based server SoC runs up to 3GHz

13 Nov 2015  | Rick Merritt

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The presence of ARM architecture targeting the red-hot server sector seemed to be the dominating theme during the company's annual conference. As of the present, Intel owns the majority of the server processor market, a business it depends on to offset the decline in PC processor sales and prices. However, Applied Micro Circuits Corp. has revealed its third-generation ARM-based server SoC, the X-Gene 3, running at up to 3GHz and made in a 16nm TSMC process that will sample late next year.

Engineers from EMC and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise (HPE) suggested they are developing storage systems running on ARM SoCs, and an IT manager from Morgan Stanley said he is testing ARM servers for one of his applications.

Paramesh Gopi

Applied CEO Paramesh Gopi held up a prototype X-Gene 3 at an ARM event. (EE Times image)

However, Red Hat noted it is only supporting ARM through a developer release of Linux. Before it can be commercially released, Red Hat needs to test the software on multiple motherboards using standard form factors, something that doesn't yet exist.

"In June I would have said they are still 18-24 months away, but now I have reason to hope they will come much sooner, ask me in December," a Red Hat representatives said.

HPE sells ARM-based servers on a non-standard board of its own design. ARM showed at the event photos of six other server boards from four other vendors, but they apparently do not meet Red Hat's criteria.

Besides Applied, AMD also sells an ARM server SoC, Cavium and Texas Instruments are shipping parts more oriented to communications and embedded systems and Broadcom, Huawei and Qualcomm have announced recently for chips. Also, a startup in China announced in August plans for an ARM server SoC.

ARM told investors it believes its architecture will be used in 25 per cent of all servers by 2020. Ubuntu and CentOS versions of Linux are currently available for today's chips as is Java server software.

For its part, Applied is shipping its X-Gene 1 chips now and sampling its second generation parts. The third generation SoCs will sport significantly higher performance, in part due to an upgraded pipeline that executes more than four instructions per cycle. The chips also use a new PCI Express-based interconnect between cores and nodes.

X-Gene 3 will pack 32 cores, 42 PCIe Gen 3 links and support eight DDR4 memory channels running at up to 2,667MHz. By contrast Intel's high-end Xeon server processors now support just four memory channels, but are often ganged into two- and four-processor systems.

"There is no more 2P or 4P," said Applied's CEO Paramesh Gopi. The SoC "breaks the socket barrier with a new technology that is a ground-up new interconnect that allows many cores to scale linearly" but unlike Intel's QPI is not proprietary and could link 256 cores on nodes with 2TB memory each, he said.

The X-Gene 3 "sounds like a tremendous improvement over their current offerings," said David Kantor, a processor analyst at The Linley Group and Real World Technologies.

Applied's first generation parts were roughly equivalent to Intel's mobile Atom chips, not its Xeon server parts, Kantor said. "They have to escape this 'microserver' ghetto Intel created, the X-Gene 1 and 2 didn't do it but it sounds like 3 has a crack as long as its per-core performance is at least close to that of Intel," he said.

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