Photograph by Konrad Fiedler — Bloomberg/Getty Images

Qualcomm isn't content to stay in mobile chips.

By Stacey Higginbotham
October 8, 2015

Qualcomm demonstrated a platform that uses the same style of chips designed for mobile phones to run a server.

The 24-core chip is part of Qualcomm’s server development platform that it built with networking chip company Mellanox and Xilinx, a company that makes programmable chips. In designing a part Qualcomm QCOM would compete directly with Intel intc and the $14 billion it made last year selling processors to the data center market.

The design was shown running, but is only now in the testing phase with undisclosed data center customers.

Qualcomm is not the first company to try to build a server chip using the same architecture found inside mobile phones. Since 2010, companies ranging from Marvell to startups like Calxeda have done it. Calxeda raised $103 million but shut down in 2013.

The lure of using ARM’s armh mobile phone architecture as opposed to Intel or AMD’s x86 architecture lies in power consumption and how servers are used today.

Once we started virtualizing servers it made sense to use smaller, more power-efficient processors for the jobs running on these servers since cloud computing divided the jobs into tasks anyhow.

 

And because the data centers running our clouds and huge services such as Google and Facebook were becoming so huge, power consumption was becoming something to keep an eye on. Because chips are both a huge source power consumption and of heat, they became a target.

Cynically, the threat of going to an ARM-based chip also acts as a competitive threat to keep Intel on its toes for many of these large data center customers. So far, there are a few ARM-based servers running a few special computing jobs in big data centers, but no big publicized computing job has transitioned to ARM despite the fact that platforms using credible ARM-based chips have been available for at least a year.

As for Qualcomm’s new platform, it includes a 24-core system-on a-chip based on the ARM v8-A instruction set. It is a 64-bit chip, which means it can handle typical computing workloads. So far it will run Linux, KVM virtualization, OpenStack DevStack for OpenStack cloud orchestration, guest virtual machines running a standard Linux distribution along with Apache web server and WordPress, but not Vmware’s hypervisor. So you may not find it in a private cloud unless that private cloud happens to run OpenStack.

 

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