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Microsoft StrongARMing Intel To Produce 16-core Atom?

Only weeks after announcing that it would support the ARM ecosystem, the clearest indication that Microsoft might be using its newly founded strategic partnership to "encourage" its existing x86 partners to dance to its own tunes has appeared.

Speaking at Linley Data Center Conference last week, Dileep Bhandarkar, a distinguished engineer of Microsoft's Global Foundation Services, said that "ARM's interesting to look at", before adding "if it lights a fire under Intel and AMD, that makes us happy".

He hinted that Intel and AMD should focus on building 16-core system-on-chip (SoCs) based on their Atom and Bobcat technology respectively. Given that both x86 companies have only managed to reached dual core architectures on these two platforms, it is a very long shot indeed.

SoCs is where ARM is strongest given the number of designs - TI, Calexda, Marvell, Renesas, Nvidia - that are currently on the market; yet Bhandarkar reckons ARM will have to offer a 2x improvement per dollar per watt to make the transition worthy because "instruction-set transitions" are extremely painful.

Microsoft is keen on pushing SoCs because it would allow for the core logic and I/O functionality to be integrated in the same chipset, which will decrease the cost of production, and, most importantly, reduce power consumption and dissipation.

Whether it makes sense for Intel to design an Atom-based server processor version remains to be seen; that hasn't prevented Intel partners like Supermicro or HP from launching their own Atom Server solutions based on existing Atom chip like the Atom 230 or the D510 which should be fine for entry level web servers.

However, for anything more substantial, even a 16-core Atom processor might not be powerful enough given that the Atom was never initially intended to run server applications.

Furthermore, Intel already has plans for a quad core, eight thread Sandy bridge base Xeon processor, the E3-1260L, which has a TDP of 45W, packs 8MB L3 cache and runs at 2.4GHz. Will Intel cannibalise its own, money spinning Xeon family by introducing server-oriented Atom processors?

The other factor that needs to be accounted for is the fact that ARM partners are not standing still. Maxwell, the first product based on Nvidia's project Denver, is likely to come as early as 2013 and may provide up to 16GFlops per watt. In comparison, an x86-based AMD Opteron 2345 which has six cores, runs at 2.6GHz and has a TDP of 75W, reaches a mere 10.4 GFlops.