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Google gearing up to design ARM-based server chips

Google is mulling the possibility of designing its own ARM-based processors for the servers that run the company's massive and ever-expanding data centre operations around the world, according to Bloomberg.

The plan, cited by an unnamed source, could be a blow to Intel. Google buys a lot of industry standard servers powered by x86 processors, like Intel's Xeon product line, and is the chip giant's fifth-largest single customer, Bloomberg noted.

When asked about the rumour by Bloomberg, Google "declined to say whether the company may develop its own chips" but also reiterated its investment in "designing the world's best infrastructure" for its data centres.

"This includes both hardware design (at all levels) and software design," said a spokesperson.

ARM also punted on a question about the possibility that Google plans to license the company's technology to design computer chips.

"Our partners operate independently, and we're not in a position to comment on their business operations. Any questions regarding specific design decisions should be directed to Google," an ARM spokesperson said.

One hint that Google may indeed be on the path towards designing its own chips is that the company has posted a job opening for a "digital design engineer" with a minimum of six years of "digital ASIC/chip design experience," Bloomberg noted. The job will encompass "the lowest levels of circuit design to large system design, and see those systems all the way through to high volume manufacturing," the Google listing states.

And with ARM's 64-bit instruction set now available to licensees, processors based on the UK firm's architecture are poised to take on some of the back-end computational tasks currently handled almost exclusively by x86-based chips like Intel's.

Of course, booting up an in-house chip team entails quite a bit more than just hiring an individual versed in designing application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs). Presuming Google does want to mix 64-bit ARM systems into its back-end operations but doesn't plan to build its own fabs, the Internet giant would have to suss out the economics of hiring a semiconductor foundry to manufacture its own designs versus buying such chips from another party.

Among the companies with licenses to design 64-bit ARM products is Intel's longtime rival Advanced Micro Devices, which could add an interesting twist to this story if Google opted to source an ARM server platform from a third party.

At any rate, even if Google does aim to introduce another chip architecture into its data centres, that process could take years of testing and implementation. For now, it seems highly unlikely that the company will be ripping out a whole bunch of Intel servers and replacing them with ARM systems any time soon.