- Ampere, the company founded by former Intel exec Renee James two years ago, this week stunned the chip industry by releasing a record-breaking new ARM chip for data centers.
- It is the largest most powerful ARM chip to date for cloud computing that matches the performances of traditional x86 chips by Intel and AMD while using far less power, James tells Business Insider.
- Microsoft and Oracle, two companies close with James, have already signed on to use the chip in their clouds.
- This could help them compete with Amazon’s cloud. Amazon bought its own ARM chip maker and is using that chip in its own AWS cloud.
- Today “Intel has 98% + share” in the data center server market but ARM chips is the next big thing, James tells Business Insider.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Earlier this week, Ampere, the chip startup founded two years ago by former top Intel exec Renee James, stunned the industry by releasing a powerful new ARM processor for cloud computing data centers.
It’s the first time a chip based on the energy-efficient ARM technology has been able to go toe-to-toe in terms of raw computing performance with the top-of-the line x86 chips made by Intel and AMD, the chips which currently dominate the data center market.
“We started this company two years ago and in two short years, we’ve come out with a product in cloud that’s a breakthrough,” James told Business Insider.
The Ampere Altra chip has 80 “cores” yet only consumes as much energy (about 210 watts) as much smaller chips, the company says. The chip is being made by contract chip manufacturer TSMC on its tiny 7mm, N7 manufacturing process, the most advanced technology for etching transistors into silicon that are many times tinier than a human hair. A core is the brains of a CPU. Each core is like a mini-computer on the chip, able to process its own tasks. The more cores, the more powerful the server is, able to do more tasks simultaneously.
The chip raises the pressure on Intel, which is banking on the data center market as one of its crucial markets for growth under the leadership of new CEO Bob Swan.
The new era of powerful ARM server processors is still in its early days probably isn’t an immediate threat to Intel’s business today, but it’s a clear sign that a market Intel once had virtually all to itself is about to become much more competitive.
“The data center markets is growing so much, there’s room for more than one winner. Intel has 98% + share. There’s room for other players. There’s always something that comes next,” James says.
From phones to data centers
ARM chips were originally designed for smartphones and tablets with a goal of using less battery life. For years the ARM industry has been eyeing the big, lucrative server and data center market, trying to take those humble, low-power chips and make them formidable enough to handle the most demanding applications like cloud computing.
Ampere says that its 80-core chip also performs better than comparable chips built on the legacy x86 architecture, the chips and legacy James helped to create during her years at Intel. James left Intel in 2016.
“It has features and capabilities unique for the cloud, on top of this higher performance and data throughput,” she says.
There’s been some controversy surrounding how Ampere came up with its benchmark comparisons. Each chip company, Intel and AMD included, tends to use its own custom compiler software for such tests (software that converts the code from the language humans used to write the app, into the machine-code instructions that the chip reads).
As you might imagine, when doing comparison testing, companies tend to set up the tests to make their own wares perform at the best. Ampere didn’t use Intel or AMD’s compiler but chose to a popular open source one called GCC. They argue that its a more real-world test, because that compiler is more widely used, especially in the ARM server world.
The point is, while the benchmark performance claims — i.e. faster or better— should be taken with a grain of salt when they come from any vendor, the underlying result for Ampere is still impressive: this new ARM chip is proven ready for the data center.
“We are bringing the highest core count, the highest throughput, the lowest power for the data center. That’s an accomplishment in two years, a hard thing to do. We’ve never seen an alternative platform seen this level of performance,” James who is understandably proud said.
Ampere has also already publicly announced two big cloud customers, Microsoft (who James worked closely with during her long years at Intel) and Oracle (where James is a board member). Ampere also has a number of other big name partners who are working to make their tech perform well with the new chip including VMware, Linux-maker Canonical, Lenovo and Micron.
Ampere isn’t the only ARM data center vendor hoping to turn this into the next big chip market. Marvell offers one. And a group of former Google and Apple chip designers came out of stealth late last year with a ARM startup called Nuvia, backed Dell and Mayfield among others.
Perhaps the biggest proving point of all is Amazon, who bought Annapurna Labs and which is making an ARM chip for use in the AWS cloud. That’s not a chip for sale to the world, but it means that the world’s biggest clouds are all running ARM.
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