Marvell seeks to plug ARM into datacentres

Marvell has said it's planning to ship quad-core ARM-based systems on a chip later this year and reckons the silicon could be used to power datacentre servers.

Such a design would use a fraction of the power of the greedier x86 architecture generally used in such scenarios, but by stiching a bunch of ARM cores together, Marvell reckons the technology may also be able to cope with the demands. Another consideration for ARM-based servers is the performance.

An Intel server chip can easily deliver three times the performance of ARM-based chips, but Marvell is addressing that minor difficulty.

"We have on the road map quad-core symmetric multiprocressing enterprise ARM-based SoCs that will be here soon," Simon Milner, vice president of Marvell's enterprise group told EE Times recently. "There's a huge opportunity here because the market is x86 dominated and ARM can bring power consumption breakthroughs into this space," he said.

Such a move sends shivers up and down the spine of the Intel. The firm has a virtual monopoly in the x86 space and only really tolerates "rival" AMD's presence so it can tell the authorities it's not a real monopoly. But in the low-power space ARM rules, which is why its designs power most mobile phones you can think of. Intel is trying to squeeze itself into this space but its Atom just doesn't yet cut the mustard.

Despite protestations that it "isn't frightened of ARM" as some geezer recently wrote, it is really.

Marvell has already shown off an Armada (ARMada geddit?) 310 that runs at 1GHz while consuming just 700 milliWatts. The outfit reckons the design will scale to 2GHz at less than a Watt, according to Milner.

The pair have a Web server running Marvell dual-core ARM processors at ARM's Silicon Valley offices.

"There was a lot of tuning of the software needed to get the right performance, but overall it was a smooth roll out," Milner said. "We are on par [with the x86] in performance today and have a detailed road map that will really push performance up," said Milner.

If Marvell is targeting Intel's Xeon chips it has a bit of room for maneouvre. In terms of price, an ARM-based design could undercut Intel's server chip by a factor of 10 at least.

Marvell is working with industry players to develop software to run on its multi-core design. According to GigaOm, at least one partner is working on a port of a server version Microsoft Windows to ARM, a task Milner admits is, "a large undertaking".