Intel’s Biggest Rival: ARM Chips in Servers and Smartphones

Forget Intel versus AMD–that was a chip-maker battle of yesteryear. Now the real CPU war is happening in smartphones and servers, where Intel is playing a desperate game of catch-up to ARM and a few new contenders.



Forget Intel versus AMD–that was a chip-maker battle of yesteryear, played out inside your desktop PC. Now the real CPU war is happening inside smartphones and servers, where Intel is playing a desperate game of catch-up to ARM and a few new pretenders, and there’re billions of dollars at stake.

Server chip maker Smooth-Stone has just raised $48 million of venture cash to fund development of ARM-based server chips. The 12-man company is just two years old, but its bold plans to challenge Intel in the server CPU market have already attracted financial backing from ARM itself, ATIC (which also owns part of AMD) and Texas Instruments.

ARM chips differ from Intel’s more traditionally designed CPUs in that they attempt to produce the same sort of raw computing power in a different way: Instead of Intel’s millions of transistors, each arranged in a complex architecture that’s designed to optimize a list of specialist functions, ARM chips architecture is about simplicity, using a smaller number of transistors more efficiently and speedily. As a result an ARM-based CPU is hard to compare to an Intel one–numbers that consumers traditionally rely on, like the GHz clock speeds, don’t necessarily translate between the two design ideas. But ARM chips can definitely be as powerful as Intel’s offerings, and their lower component count has one huge pay-off: They consumer far less electrical power. This means they’re more suited for use in smartphones, where supping small amounts of juice from the battery is absolutely key to the overall performance.

Until now though, ARM-based chips haven’t often been used in server designs because they are aimed at the limited computing tasks that phones require. This has left Intel as the dominant force in the server game, which typically sees the highest chip prices on the modern computing market. But recently some alternative thinking about servers has begun to pop up, with efforts like SeaMicro’s Atom-based architecture–while these are still Intel chips, the notion is to combine lots of smaller, cheaper, more electrically efficient chips into a server that can compete with a more traditional one. And this is exactly where Smooth Stone fits in. ARM chips would be a fabulous way to achieve a similar result, with the benefit of even lower power consumption–an effect that really comes into play when you imagine a server farm stacked with hundreds of servers, each needing a power supply and cooling. If Smooth Stone can up-scale ARM chips to cope with the kind of computer power demands of a server, then people who own server farms with massive electrical power bills (and pressure to reduce their carbon footprint) are going to pay attention.

Meanwhile we know Intel also has plans to try to jam its chips into everything from smartphones to cars … and so far hasn’t done very well at the task. Now it looks like Intel’s going to be facing some steep challenges to entering the billion dollar smartphone game–currently dominated by ARM-based designs. Qualcomm and TI have both revealed plans for dual-core lightweight CPUs destined for in-phone use. Until now this kind of architecture hasn’t arrived for phones, as it uses more power, but the processing benefits it brings are so huge that it’s definitely an option for future smartphone design, especially given the increasing sophistication of phone apps. Qualcomm and TI will be using ARM A9 reference designs, with TI’s OMAP4430 running at 1GHz (like the iPad’s Apple A4, but with two cores instead of one) and Qualcomm has two designs at 1.2 GHz and 1.5Ghz–this one likely to hit in 2011. With Apple itself almost certainly working on A9-reference chip designs for the next iPad (also likely to arrive in early 2011), things don’t look too hot for Intel.

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