Startup chipmaker Ampere Computing fired its opening salvo against Intel last week by releasing its first ARM-based server processor and announcing that Lenovo will become the first hardware company to ship servers running on those chips.
The Santa Clara, California-based startup – led by CEO Renee James, a former Intel president – is building a new family of 64-bit ARM server processors aimed at hyperscale cloud providers. In doing so, the company hopes to capture a piece of the server market that long dominated by James’s former employer.
Since it was formed a year ago last October, Ampere has been busy developing a product roadmap, building its first processor, and hiring, Matt Taylor, senior VP of worldwide sales and business development, said.
The startup has roots in AppliedMicro, which was one of the first to produce a 64-bit ARM server processor. Semiconductor maker MACOM had purchased AppliedMicro in early 2017 and then sold its X-Gene ARMv8 64-bit server-on-a-chip technology to Project Denver Holdings, a startup backed by The Carlyle Group. Carlyle-backed Ampere is now taking the AppliedMicro technology to market, with James at the helm.
The newly released Ampere eMAG features 3.3GHz speeds and up to 1TB of memory, using only 125 watts of power. The 16nm chip comes in 16 or 32 ARMv8-A cores and features eight memory controllers.
“The key thing here is we bought the IP,” Taylor said. “It was not a product. We had to make modifications and enhancements to turn it into a product that is high-volume, manufacturable, and meets the quality requirements of server-class customers.”
Taylor said Lenovo will release two servers in October that run on the Ampere eMAG chip.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” Taylor said of the Lenovo partnership. “It validates us as a supplier, and it validates the momentum of ARM. You’ve got a Tier One global OEM that is now shipping a platform with our processor on it.”
Ampere in a press release last week also stated that the company has partnered with several original design manufacturers.
Taylor said Ampere’s first processor is competitive against incumbent x86 chip suppliers Intel and AMD both in terms of performance per dollar and performance per watt.
The chip is on a par with Xeon Gold 6130, the top end of Intel’s Xeon Gold family “at half the cost,” he said. “And if you look at other SKUs like an AMD Epyc 7351P, we are roughly the same performance, but about 50 percent lower power.”
Ampere, whose initial workforce of 250 employees came largely from AppliedMicro, has been on a hiring spree this year. The company’s workforce has increased to 350 to 400 employees, including new key hires from Intel, as well as about 50 people from Qualcomm who specialize in software and circuits, he said.
Ampere has also developed a long-term roadmap that includes its next four processors. The next-generation product, available in 2019, will be a 7nm chip with multi-socket and single-socket options, Taylor said.
Patrick Moorhead, president and principal analyst of Moor Insights & Strategy, said Ampere’s announcements were a good start, but the company still has a lot left to prove.
“They have an experienced team, and it’s made a difference,” he said. “They were able to get good leverage out of the IP they started with. The next thing I would expect them to talk about is customers who are testing it, and after that, customers that are deploying them and the volumes of how big those deployments are.”
Earlier this year, IDC analysts said that ARM chip vendors could gain market share in the coming years as software ecosystems for ARM processors mature and as new ARM processors become more scalable in power and performance. IDC expects ARM-based server processors to grow from 0.3 percent of the market in 2017 to 9.9 percent in 2021.
Moorhead said it’s a good time for Ampere to enter the market because Qualcomm recently shifted its focus from the cloud market to the edge computing market. Other ARM processor competitors include Marvell Technology, which recently completed its purchase of Cavium.
“Ampere is going after a similar market that Qualcomm was going after. This means there’s one less competitor they have to deal with on the ARM side,” Moorheads said.
The Lenovo partnership is a proof point for Ampere and will help the startup make inroads into both China and US markets, he added.