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It appears that Ampere has picked up the Arm based server chip baton from AppliedMicro

“We have an opportunity with cloud computing to take a fresh approach” – Renee James

In 2010, AppliedMicro made a strategic decision to sign an architectural licence for Arm’s 64bit v8 processor cores and to embark on the design of a multicore device.

The company’s incoming CEO at the time perceived the need to rethink the architecture of server processors in order to achieve a better balance between power and performance and to make such processors more attractive economically.

Although the X-Gene project had been underway since 2010, it wasn’t until 2014 that an eight core chip appeared on the market; almost by stealth. That 40nm device was followed by a ‘Gen 2’ version – partly a process shrink to 28nm, but also including optimisations – and AppliedMicro then started work on Gen 3. This device featured 32 ARMv8-A 64bit cores operating at up to 3GHz, eight DDR4-2667 memory channels and the ability to address up to 1Tbyte of memory. The part – X-Gene 3 – was targeted at TSMC’s 16nm finFET process.
But then Applied Micro was bought by MACOM, which announced immediately its intention to dispose of AppliedMicro’s computing business – including X-Gene 3.

It took a few months, but the deed was done in October 2017, when MACOM sold the AppliedMicro compute business to Ampere, receiving a 20% stake in the latter worth some $36.5million. Ampere, meanwhile, is an investment by asset management specialist Carlyle Group.

And in an interesting twist, one of Carlyle’s operating executives – Renee James – has been installed as Ampere’s chair and CEO. The interesting twist is that James was Intel’s president until she left the company in 2016.

In something akin to poacher turned gamekeeper, James will now be building a company whose products will be competing with those of her former employer.

Sitting alongside James in the management suite as chief architect is another ex Intel executive Atiq Bajwa. At Intel, Bajwa was the general manager of product architecture, where he was involved with creating products for data centre applications – precisely the market which Ampere intends to address. As if that wasn’t enough, Ampere has also hired Rohit Vidwans as executive vp of engineering. Another long term Intel employee, Vidwans has worked on Intel’s eight and 10 core Xeon processors.

While AppliedMicro had designed and developed X-Gene 3, it wasn’t entirely obvious whether the part had progressed beyond the provision of engineering samples. But the presence of Bajwa and Vidwans in the executive team would suggest that further work may have been needed. Nonetheless, Ampere says its processor is sampling now and will be in production in the second half of the year.

The question remains as to whether Arm based server processors can dent Intel’s monopoly. Ampere is certainly not the first to try – and neither it is the largest. Other contenders include Qualcomm, with the Centriq 2400, and AMD, with the Opteron-A series. Other companies viewing the sector with interest include EZchip, now owned by Mellanox, and Broadcom. Others have fallen by the wayside. It would appear their combined efforts haven’t turned the tide – at least as yet.

James is, not surprisingly, enthusiastic: “We have an opportunity with cloud computing to take a fresh approach with products that are built to address the new software ecosystem. The workloads moving to the cloud require more memory and, at the same time, customers have stringent requirements for power, size and costs. The software that runs the cloud enables Ampere to design with a different point of view. The Ampere team’s approach and architecture meets the expectation on performance and power and gives customers the freedom to accelerate the delivery of the most memory-intensive applications and workloads such as AI, big data, storage and database in their next-generation data centres.”

Author
Graham Pitcher

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