Your Smartphone CPU May Go into Data Centers

There are more than 100 licensees of ARM's core logic semiconductor technology. So what makes Smooth-Stone unique? For starters, it's going after a very different market than your typical ARM licensee, and second, it's got quite a collection of investors.

The Austin, Tex.-based firm announced this week it has raised $48 million from a cadre of investors that range from ARM itself to several venture capital firms, including Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), the company that rescued AMD and helped it spin off Globalfoundries, plus electronics giant Texas Instruments.

"This kind of investment, the amount, and the strength of this syndicate is a strong endorsement for the innovation we are bringing to market," said Smooth-Stone CEO Barry Evans in a statement. "We look forward to taking advantage of the insights and know-how of these industry-leading investors."

The vast majority of ARM licensees target either embedded systems or handheld devices, thanks to its low-power design. Apple is the company's most famous licensee, with ARM-based processors in all of its handheld devices.

But Smooth-Stone plans to bring the power efficiency of the ARM processor to servers and data centers, traditionally the haven of Intel and AMD. Smooth-Stone said it will design semiconductors and software focused on energy efficiency and increasing compute density in the data center. Smooth-Stone said its customers will have "new, unseen options as they plan their future server deployments."

Power efficiency is the new watchword for data center managers and administrators. As data centers have grown in complexity and density, the biggest challenge has been electricity, not compute power. Admins could always cram in more hardware but in many locations, such as dense urban areas like New York City, can't get any more power to run the hardware.

"Our goal is to completely remove power consumption as an issue for the data center. Imagine that change for companies with a large presence on the Internet," said Evans. "They all deal with the reality that as the mass of information grows daily, so does their power consumption. Every day these companies are thinking about managing their data center sprawl. We want to make sure that space and power are not constraining their potential."

Smooth-Stone's idea is not new. SeaMicro, a Santa Clara, Calif. company, recently announced ultra-dense servers using Intel's Atom processor that it claims would cut power and space requirements by up to 75 percent. Boston-based Tilera, spun out from MIT, has announced its own processor that offers a similar low-power 64-core processor for the data center.

Both firms have the same basic premise: for certain server functions, like Web serving, a Xeon or Opteron processor is overkill. So they offer use low-power, basic processors to do simple page rendering in a fraction of the power draw of a Xeon or Opteron.

But taking on Intel and AMD with $48 million in VC money? Good luck, said In-Stat analyst Jim McGregor. "$48 million is enough to put a sign on the door for a month. You can't do a chip on that," he said.

"It's a hard stretch for ARM to catch Intel in the data center. I think ARM has the best potential in embedded and other home consumer electronics. It's a natural for them because of their low power architecture. Scaling up into the data center is a much bigger stretch," he added.

It's not hopeless, McGregor added. There are future ARM products that have not been announced, and the company may come out with something much more powerful than it has now. But he thinks the firm would be better served targeting embedded instead of the enterprise.

"Future products from ARM will have a much broader appeal because ARM is being pushed by partners to go after other market segments," said McGregor.


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  • LLJones
    Have to agree. 48 mill vs several billion and well established is an uphill climb.
  • Haserath
    Your Smartphone CPU May Go into Data Centers
    I'm sorry, that would be called stealing :) .

    48mil does seem low to be able to design a chip that will go against a 10 core Xeon or 16 core MagnyCour. The adoption will happen slowly even if they are able to design a good chip that could compete. They should look for a market that wouldn't be as hard to enter, just so they could get more money before they try to take on the big boys in the server market.
  • Firehead2k
    The minimalistic budged aside, I'm sure there is demand for these specialized architectures.
    However I can't imagine entire data centers running only on ARM powered devices that have been engineered to do one thing extremely efficient.
    A scenario would be rendering HTML5 pages, but a year from now the big players decide to add something and make revision 5.1 that won't work with the existing hardware (or run very inefficient).

    I suppose in the end it will depend on the companies cost/benefit requirements. If for example a Xenon can render 100 pages in a set time, and the specialized hardware can do 10000 with the same power draw even if they have to replace the HW within 2 years, it might just be feasible.
  • palladin9479
    The idea here is that you can also add more ARM CPU's in less space then conventional x86 systems. Just imagine your smart-phone is housing a CPU, memory, permanent storage (usually SD flash), battery and a big nice display to show it all off. The CPU itself is ultra tiny and use's very little power with almost no head load (comparatively). This makes it ideal for massive multiprocessing. With the right architectural engineering you can throw 16 or more of these cores, hell 32 might be possibly in a year or so, on a single blade. Putting dozens and dozens of blades together and you can easily establish a mini-super computer that uses incredibly small amounts of power and can be easily reconfigured for any task. You would "upgrade" by swapping out blades or just adding more since ARM is an architecture not a specific CPU. And the best part is you can easily turn off single CPUs or entire cards if their power isn't being used or otherwise needed where as current CISC x86 CPUs struggle with that due their monolithic architecture.
  • fayzaan
    Ill buy the Fitness SXXXXX for $20 pls and thank you
  • kelemvor4
    Every 5 or 10 years we hear big processor news about risc is going to really take off and replace some sector currently dominated by cisc. It hasn't happened yet. I remember risc discussions were all the rage in the 90's on FIDOnet before this whole internet thing really got going... Some things never change.

    I bet the duke nukem forever servers will all be risc based arm processors...
  • hemelskonijn
    Am i the only one that loves AMD/ATI products but every time i read about Global foundries imagines it to be like Veridian Dynamic?, i don't know but Global foundries just sounds evil to me.
  • dEAne
  • ceteras
    They don't need to develop a new CPU, it's already done by ARM. All they need is a technology to allow feeding thousands of these hungry little CPU's with data.
  • eyemaster
    It won't matter that they only have 50$ mil. Once the 'product' is proven, they can license it away to other companies such as AMD and Intel.