Can MIPS and ARM actually compete in the server market?

Lenovo's likely to use this type of rack for its ARM servers.
Lenovo's likely to use this type of rack for its ARM servers.

MWC 2015 is usually associated with mobility, tablets and smartphones. However, the event is also becoming more popular with semiconductor companies looking to discuss about their latest server-focused products as backend infrastructure and the data centre become part of the debate around mobile.

One of the big talking points has been over whether competitors to Intel can actually topple the Santa Clara semiconductor behemoth in the server market.

Now that the desktop market has been "sorted out" (AMD's ain't competition anymore) and mobile appears where Intel is focusing its attention, could there be a window of opportunity for them?

ARM and.... MIPS!

We first met with Cavium, an ARM and MIPS partner that unveiled a 48-core server chip, the ThunderX, last year and already has a design win with Lenovo.

Cavium was adamant that ARM will be able to compete with Intel and has positioned its ThunderX models against Intel's Xeon E3-series and, according to its Milt Douglass, its VP of worldwide sales, are ahead of the ARM competition (AMD, AMCC, Calxeda) when it comes to performance/value.

Now, Cavium is also a MIPS licensee but Milt made it clear that ARM had a very clear advantage when it came to server implementation in the market despite the launch, last September, of the I6400 (formerly known as Warrior), the MIPS's 64-bit new flagship CPU IP core.

ARM, he said, has the momentum behind them and is unlikely to be bothered by MIPS' recent announcement. Coincidentally, on the same day, Cavium announced that it had launched a new family of single chip solutions called the Octeon Fusion-M that used 64-bit MIPS cores i.e. the I6400.

But MIPS's Alexandru Voica puts forward some compelling arguments which would suggest that the I6400 would make a rather nice server processor – at least on paper - especially in the micro and density-optimised server market.

The I6400, he tells me, can run up to four threads simultaneously with up to six cores per cluster and up to 64 clusters on one die.

So in theory, a single processor could run a staggering 1536 threads (similar to a GPU like Nvidia's Fermi) and, ironically, Cavium, of all the MIPS partners, looks to be the one capable of making that happen.

What about software?

But hardware is only a small part of the equation, as Philippe Chevallier, Director Technology Platforms Global Research and Development at Kontron. The German company builds embedded computers and industrial PC systems for a wide variety of high value verticals; commercial avionics, infotainment, defense etc.

Chevallier confirmed that while the company continuously looks at the competitive landscape and how the market moves, alternatives to Intel Xeon processors, while attractive in some scenarios, was not a good fit for his.

More than performance or hardware ROI, the software conundrum is what is preventing companies like Kontron to even start evaluating rivals to Intel products. "They [The ARM ecosystem] need a more solid software strategy" he said bluntly.

Intel has what looks like an insurmountable advantage when it comes to software. Despite being known for a hardware company, it is one of the biggest software companies in the world and has been forging partnerships with myriad of ISVs (Independent Software Vendors) for decades.

At last count, Intel SSG was present in over 20 countries, counting more than 6000 ISVs in its network and handling a developer program covering a staggering 10 million developers ("software, entrepreneurial, enthusiast and hobbyist", says the copy).

Learning from past mistakes

You simply don't build those overnight and not having access to this network is a considerable downside. ARM, one must not forget, is a different architecture and would require recompiling a lot of legacy applications running on x86 (oh and forget about virtualizing those).

And it's not just about hardware and software. The same issues that ARM and MIPS faced today when tackling the server market have also encountered by Intel when it tried to launch its own operating system, Moblin.

Doug Fisher, the company's senior vice president, Software and Services group, candidly admitted to us that they've learnt a lot from their mistakes. The ecosystem on top of the OS, Doug told us, is absolutely critical. "It is very difficult to create environment and developers are expensive", he added.

Add in the need to get certification schemes and compliance programs up and running and one starts to grasp the momentous task that lies ahead of ARM and MIPS as they tread along the long and arduous road to Server land.

Which brings us to what's next. Well, a well-placed source confirmed that Intel will soon announce a new range of Xeon products that will be taking ARM server SoCs head on, in an attempt to swiftly stifle the competition before it garners enough momentum amongst partners and clients.

Desire Athow
Managing Editor, TechRadar Pro

Désiré has been musing and writing about technology during a career spanning four decades. He dabbled in website builders and web hosting when DHTML and frames were in vogue and started narrating about the impact of technology on society just before the start of the Y2K hysteria at the turn of the last millennium.