More Competition

There is no doubt that customers would benefit from Intel being challenged in the server market. There have been people arguing that the server market is healthy even with only one dominant player, since Intel is doomed to compete with previous Intel CPUs and cannot afford to slow down its update cycle. We disagree, as it is clear that the lack of competition is causing Intel to price its top Xeon EP quite a bit higher. In the midrange, there is no pressure to offer much better performance per dollar: a small increase is what we get. The recently launched Xeon E5 v3 is barely 15% faster at the same price than the Xeon E5 v2. So we would definitely like to see some healthy competition.

Are Economies of Scale and Volume Enough?

Yes, economies of scale is one of the reasons that Intel was able to overtake the RISC competition. However, simply accounting Intel's success back at the end of previous century to being the player with the highest unit sales is short sighted. Look at the table below, which describes the situation back in late 1995:

Vendor CPU SPECint95 SPECfp95
Intel Pentium Pro 200 8.2 6.8
Digital Alpha 21164 333 MHz 9.8 13.4
MIPS (SGI) R8000 90 MHz 5.5 12
SUN Ultra I 167 MHz 6.6 9.4
HP PA7200-RISC 120MHz 6.4 9.1

There are three things you should note. First, excluding the Alpha 21164, Intel managed to outperform every RISC competitor out there with their first server chip in integer performance. Intel managed this by excellent execution and innovative micro-architecture features (such as the 256KB SRAM + core MCM package and out-of-order micro-ops back-end). Intel also had a process technology lead and used 350nm while the rest of the competition was still stuck at 500nm.

Second, Intel was lucky that the top performer – Alpha – had the lowest marketshare, software base, and marketing power. Third, the server and workstation market was divided between the RISC Players. Software development was very fragmented among the RISC platforms.

So in a nutshell, there were several reasons why Intel succeeded at breaking into the server market besides their larger user base in the desktop world:

  1. Focused investments in a vertical production line and excellent execution, and as a result the best process technology in the world
  2. The performance and technology leader was not the strongest player in the market
  3. The market was fragmented, so divide and conquer was much easier

Currently, the ARM SoC challengers do not have those advantages. As far as we know, Intel's process is still the most advanced process technology on the planet. Samsung is probably close but at the moment their next generation process is not available to the Intel competitors.

Right now, Intel dominates - or more accurately owns - the server market. Every possible piece of expensive software runs on Intel, which is a very different situation from back in the RISC world of the nineties, where many pieces of important software only ran on certain RISC CPUs. Today, the server market is anything but fragmented. That makes the scale advantage of the ARM competitors a very weak argument. Intel's user base – the growing server market and declining desktop market – is large enough to sustain heavy R&D investments for a long time, contrary to the RISC vendors in the nineties which had to share a very profitable but again fragmented market.

If you're not convinced, just imagine the Alpha 21164 was the dominant RISC Server CPU, with 90-95% server market share. Just imagine that instead of having some server applications running only on SPARC or on HP PA-RISC, that every server software ran on Alpha. Now combine this with the fact that Windows on Alpha was available. It is pretty obvious that it would be have been a lot harder for Intel to break into the server and workstation market had this been the case.

So just because ARM SoCs are sold in the billions does not mean they will automatically overtake Intel server CPUs. Intel beat the RISC players because the market was fragmented, and because none of them were executing as well as Intel. For ARM alternatives to really gain traction, they need to do a lot more than simply compete in a few niche markets, as Calxeda has shown.

First Performance Measurements The Evolving Server Market


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  • hojnikb - Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - link

    Wow, i have never motherboard that simple :) Reply
  • CajunArson - Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - link

    OK you devote another huge block of text to the typical x86 complexity myth* followed by: Oh, but the ARM chips are superior because they have special-purpose processors that overcome their complete lack of performance (both raw & performance per watt).

    Uhm... WTF?? I need to have a proprietary, poorly documented add-on processor to make my software work well now? How is that a "standard"? How is requiring a proprietary add-on processor that's not part of any standard and requires boatloads of software cruft working in a "reduced instruction set architecture" exactly?

    I might as well take the AVX instruction set for modern x86... which is leagues ahead of anything that ARM has available, and say that x86 is now a "RISC" architecture because the AVX part of x86 is just as clean or cleaner than anything ARM has. I'll just conveniently forget about the rest of x86 just like the ARM guys conveniently forget about all the non-standard "application accelerators" that are required to actually make their chips compete with last-year's Atoms.

    * Maybe in a micro-controller setting where you are using a PIC or Arduino the x86 decoding is a real issue, but in a server? Please. Considering the only hard numbers you have show a 2013-model Atom beating a 2015-model ARM server processor, you'll have to try harder.
  • hlmcompany - Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - link

    The article describes ARM chips as becoming more competitive, but still lagging behind...not that they're superior. Reply
  • Kevin G - Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - link

    The coprocessor idea is something stems from mainframe philosophy. Historically things like IO requests and encryption were always handled by coprocessors in this market.

    The reason coprocessors faded away outside of the mainframe market is that it was generally cheaper to do a software implementation. Now with power consumption being more critical than ever, coprocessors are seen as a means to lower overall platform power while increasing performance.

    Philosophically, there is nothing that would prevent the x86 line from doing so and for the exact same reasons. In fact with PCIe based storage and NVMe on the horizon in servers, I can see Intel incorporating a coprocessor to do parity calculations for RAID 5/6 in there SoCs.
  • kepstin - Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - link

    Intel has already added some instructions in avx and avx2 that vastly improve the performance of software raid5 and 6; the Haswell chip in my laptop has the Linux software raid implementation claiming 24GiB/s raid5 with avx, and 23GiB/s raid6 with avx2 (per core). Reply
  • MrSpadge - Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - link

    Of course additional power draw for more complex instruction deconding mattes in servers: today they are driven by power-efficiency! The transistors may not matter as much, but in a multi-core environment they add up. Using the quoted statement from AMD of "only 10% more transistors" means one could place 11 RISC cores in the same area for the same cost as 10 otherwise identical x86 cores. Johan said it perfectly with "the ISA is not a game changer, but it matters".

    And you completely misunderstood him regarding the accelerators. Intel is producing "CPUs for everyone" and hence only providing few accelerators or special instructions. In the ARM ecosystem it's obvious that vendors are searching niches and are willing to provide custom solutions for it - hence the chance is far higher that they provide some accelerator which might be game-changing for some applications.

    This doesn't mean the architecture has to rely entirely on them, neither does it mean they have to be undocumented. The accelerators do not even have to be faster than software solutions, as long as they're easy enough to work with and provide significant power savings. Intel is doing just that with special-purpose hardware in their own GPUs.

    And don't act as if much would have changed in the Atom space ever since 22 nm Silvermont cores appeared. It doesn't matter if it's from 2013 or 2015 - it's all just the same core.
  • OreoCookie - Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - link

    What's with all the unnecessary piss and vinegar?

    All CPU vendors rely increasingly on specialized silicon, newer Intel CPUs feature special crypto instructions (AES-NI) and Quick Sync, for instance. Adding special purpose hardware to augment the system (in the past usually done for performance reasons) is quite old, just think of hardware RAID cards and video »accelerators« (which are not called GPUs). The reason that Intel doesn't add more and more of these is that they build general purpose CPUs which are not optimized for a specific workload (the article gives a few examples). In other environments (servers, mobile) the workload is much more clearly defined, and you can indeed take advantage of accelerators.

    The biggest advantage of ARM cpus is flexibility -- the ARM ecosystem is built on the idea to tailor silicon to your demands. This is also a substantial reason why Intel's efforts in the mobile market have been lackluster. Recently, Synology announced a new professional NAS (the DS2015xs) which was ARM-based rather than Intel-based. Despite its slower CPU cores, the throughput of this thing is massive -- in part, because it sports two (!) 10 GBit ethernet ports out of the box. Vendors are looking for niches where ARM-based servers could gain a foothold, so they are trying a lot of things and see what sticks.
  • goop666666 - Saturday, December 20, 2014 - link

    LOL! Most of the comments here like this one seem to be written by people who think computers should all be like gaming machines or something.

    Here'a tip: no-one cares about "complexity," "standardization," "RISC," or anything else you mention. All they care about in the target market for ARM server chips is price, performance and power, and I mean ALL THREE.

    On this Intel cannot compete. They sell wildly overpriced legacy hardware propped up by massive R&D expenditures and they're wedded to that model. The rest of the industry is wedded to the new and cheap model. Just like how the industry moved to mobile devices and Intel stood still, this change will also wash over Intel while they sit still in denial.

    There's a reason why Intel stock has gone no-where for years.
  • nlasky - Monday, December 22, 2014 - link

    Jan 8, 2010, Intel stock price $20.83. Dec 19, 2010, Intel stock price $36.37. If by gone no-where in for years you mean increased by 70% I guess you would be correct. Intel can't compete because they are wedded to their model? They have a profit margin of 20% and an operating margin of 27%. They could easily cut prices to compete with any ARM offerings. Servers have been around forever, unlike the mobile computing platform. Intel has an even larger stranglehold on this industry than ARM has in the mobile space. Here's a tip - stop spewing a bunch of uniformed nonsense just to make an argument. Reply
  • nlasky - Monday, December 22, 2014 - link

    *Dec 19, 2014 Reply

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