Qualcomm this month demonstrated its 48-core Centriq 2400 SoC in action and announced that it had started to sample its first server processor with select customers. The live showcase is an important milestone for the SoC because it proves that the part is functional and is on track for commercialization in the second half of next year.

Qualcomm announced plans to enter the server market more than two years ago, in November 2014, but the first rumors about the company’s intentions to develop server CPUs emerged long before that. In fact, being one of the largest designers of ARM-based SoCs for mobile devices, Qualcomm was well prepared to move beyond smartphones and tablets. However, while it is not easy to develop a custom ARMv8 processor core and build a server-grade SoC, building an ecosystem around such chip is even more complicated in a world where ARM-based servers are typically used in isolated cases. From the very start, Qualcomm has been rather serious not only about the processors themselves but also about the ecosystem and support by third parties (Facebook was one of the first companies to support Qualcomm’s server efforts). In 2015, Qualcomm teamed up with Xilinx and Mellanox to ensure that its server SoCs are compatible with FPGA-based accelerators and data-center connectivity solutions (the fruits of this partnership will likely emerge in 2018 at best). Then it released a development platform featuring its custom 24-core ARMv8 SoC that it made available to customers and various partners among ISVs, IHVs and so on. Earlier this year the company co-founded the CCIX consortium to standardize various special-purpose accelerators for data-centers and make certain that its processors can support them. Taking into account all the evangelization and preparation work that Qualcomm has disclosed so far, it is evident that the company is very serious about its server business.

From the hardware standpoint, Qualcomm’s initial server platform will rely on the company’s Centriq 2400-series family of microprocessors that will be made using a 10 nm FinFET fabrication process in the second half of next year. Qualcomm does not name the exact manufacturing technology, but the timeframe points to either performance-optimized Samsung’s 10LPP or TSMC’s CLN10FF (keep in mind that TSMC has a lot of experience fabbing large chips and a 48-core SoC is not going to be small). The key element of the Centriq 2400 will be Qualcomm’s custom ARMv8-compliant 64-bit core code-named Falkor. Qualcomm has yet has to disclose more information about Falkor, but the important thing here is that this core was purpose-built for data-center applications, which means that it will likely be faster than the company’s cores used inside mobile SoCs when running appropriate workloads. Qualcomm currently keeps peculiarities of its cores under wraps, but it is logical to expect the developer to increase frequency potential of the Falkor cores (vs mobile ones), add support of L3 cache and make other tweaks to maximize their performance. The SoCs do not support any multi-threading or SMP technologies, hence boxes based on the Centriq 2400-series will be single-socket machines able to handle up to 48 threads. The core count is an obvious promotional point that Qualcomm is going to use over competing offerings and it is naturally going to capitalize on the fact that it takes two Intel multi-core CPUs to offer the same amount of physical cores. Another advantage of the Qualcomm Centriq over rivals could be the integration of various I/O components (storage, network, basic graphics, etc.) that are now supported by PCH or other chips, but that is something that the company yet has to confirm.

From the platform point of view, Qualcomm follows ARM’s guidelines for servers, which is why machines running the Centriq 2400-series SoC will be compliant with ARM’s server base system architecture and server base boot requirements. The former is not a mandatory specification, but it defines an architecture that developers of OSes, hypervisors, software and firmware can rely on. As a result, servers compliant with the SBSA promise to support more software and hardware components out-of-the-box, an important thing for high-volume products. Apart from giant cloud companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft that develop their own software (and who are evaluating Centriq CPUs), Qualcomm targets traditional server OEMs like Quanta or Wiwynn (a subsidiary of Wistron) with the Centriq and for these companies having software compatibility matters a lot. On the other hand, Qualcomm’s primary server targets are large cloud companies, whereas server makers do not have their samples of Centriq yet.

During the presentation, Qualcomm demonstrated Centriq 2400-based 1U 1P servers running Apache Spark, Hadoop on Linux, and Java: a typical set of server software. No performance numbers were shared and the company did not open up the boxes so not to disclose any further information about the CPUs (i.e., the number of DDR memory channels, type of cooling, supported storage options, etc.).

Qualcomm intends to start selling its Centriq 2400-series processors in the second half of next year. Typically it takes developers of server platforms a year to polish off their designs before they can ship them, normally it would make sense to expect Centriq 2400-based machines to emerge in the latter half of 2H 2017. But since Qualcomm wants to address operators of cloud data-centers first and companies like Facebook and Google develop and build their own servers, they do not have to extensively test them in different applications, but just make sure that the chips can run their software stack.

As for the server world outside of cloud companies, it remains to be seen whether the server industry is going to bite Qualcomm’s server platform given the lukewarm welcome for ARMv8 servers in general. For these markets, performance, compatibility, and longevity are all critical factors in adopting a new set of protocols.

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Source: Qualcomm

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  • TheinsanegamerN - Monday, December 19, 2016 - link

    performance is also very, very important in the server space. It doesnt matter if you draw very little power if you only perform like a pentium 4.

    And from what has been seen, ARM has yet to deliver on the performance part. If ARM could, we'd be seeing more then just a single experimental qualcomm chip. Other companies would at least be trying.
  • FunBunny2 - Monday, December 19, 2016 - link

    -- And from what has been seen, ARM has yet to deliver on the performance part. If ARM could, we'd be seeing more then just a single experimental qualcomm chip.

    considering that C (or C++) is the universal assembler, modulo GUI libraries, any machine can be made to do what any other machine can do with applications written with it. back in the old days of IBM owning most compute business with their mainframes, they would regularly audit their customers' applications to see what instructions were most used and what could be done to optimize them. I suppose Intel does the same, although I don't remember seeing any report of the result. anyone? in particular for a server machine, how much are instructions that have been ALU for decades used? 99% of instructions? 30%? and so on.
  • name99 - Monday, December 19, 2016 - link

    WTF are you talking about?
    Broadcom, Applied Micro, Cavium, Phytium have all announced ARMv8 "server" class cores. Most of these have been what I call bringup cores, announced with no expectation of sales, they're just to allow the ecosystem to start.
    The 2017 offerings from these companies should be learning cores --- good enough to be competitive in some markets, but still primarily targeted at helping the big companies, the ecosystem, and the designers to understand what they are doing well and what need to be done better.
    The 2019 crop of cores are the ones expected to start making serious inroads. (ARM PLC expects ~20% of server sales in 2020, but only very limited takeup before then).

    This is announced parts. ARM PLC may be designing its own part that's not yet public. Apple is IMHO already designing desktop and server parts for their own use. There's probably at least one other Chinese company, in addition to Phytium, designing a server or HPC part. And we know Fujitsu has HPC ARM plans, though who knows if they will sell those chips to third parties.
  • deltaFx2 - Tuesday, December 20, 2016 - link

    Broadcomm and I believe AMCC have dropped out of the ARM server business. Cavium doesn't have the high performance part nailed yet, but rumors on the internets suggest that Cavium acquired Broadcom's server effort. So then there were two. Qualcomm, and Cavium in the US, and Phytium and others in China.

    "The 2019 crop of cores are the ones expected to start making serious inroads. (ARM PLC expects ~20% of server sales in 2020, but only very limited takeup before then)." In 2012, 2016 was supposed to be the year of ARM servers with 10% sales (can't remember the source). THe unanswered question is, why? Why cut your nose to spite your face? Not everyone loves Intel, but what's the reason to switch unless ARM surpasses intel by a significant enough margin for it to matter? And all this assumes Intel is sitting on its backside doing nothing.

    It's a serious question... what's behind all the exuberance? One could license MIPS, or SPARC, in the past. Why is this time different?
  • FriendlyUser - Saturday, December 17, 2016 - link

    How would this match against AMD Naples with 32 cores and 64 threads? It should be available soon.
  • daniel1926 - Sunday, December 18, 2016 - link

    This chip will be a nightmare for software that is licensed on a per core basis. Strong ST performance will remain the king for this type of SW
  • Meteor2 - Tuesday, December 20, 2016 - link

    This thing looks to be more in the vein of/a competitor to Xeon Phi than anything. It's beyond Xeon-D.

    Lots of parallel wimpy cores, but not as hard to utilise as a GPGPU.
  • twotwotwo - Saturday, December 24, 2016 - link

    So, know no one will read comments now, but some speculation:

    - This has to win on something other than just price. Just the fab costs keep it from being too cheap, plus Qualcomm wants its R&D money back, and Intel can afford to cut prices to compete, and the costs of other components of a server/datacenter mean a cheaper CPU isn't revolutionary if it has nothing else going for it.

    - I think the real competitor might be the Xeon D--vs. other Intel server chips it's slower (but still Intel big cores, so not *that* slow) and cheaper, and it has a NIC onboard. Density is a big deal, and you can see how small Facebook got its Xeon D nodes here: https://code.facebook.com/posts/1711485769063510/f...

    - I think a large cloud corp could find a niche where an ARM chip would be at least *acceptable*. Some loads want cores as fast as you can practically get them; some don't. Right now, e.g. Google deals with this by loading up a bunch of "balanced" boxes with a variety of tasks that each need different things (e.g. RAM, CPU, disk (space and IOPS), network), but I bet they can find a place for specialized boxes with ARM cores if they want. The speed has to be "good enough," but something slower than Intel big cores might meet that bar.

    - I imagine that Intel will often be ready to make a counter-offer, and, hey, their stuff is good and they're the incumbent. I suspect to go for Qualcomm's chips, a cloud company has to be playing a long game, trying to build an alternative to Intel at least in some niche. (I'd also expect them to brag about the power savings and environmental friendliness of low-power cores, but somewhat cynically I'm not sure that will really be much of a factor for them while they shop.)

    - As post says, I wonder what components like the NIC that Qualcomm brought onto the SoC. I also see everyone bragging about how great their future process nodes will be; it's hard to guess much, but wonder whether there might be a closer competition in the future on the process side.

    - Anyway, it's a moderately big deal if we see a big US cloud company talk about their use of something like this in production, very big deal if, you know, AWS/GCP/Azure come out with an ARM server instance type and it's legitimately interesting to use.

    ARM servers have been *just about* to become a thing a long time, so I don't even pretend to have a prediction anymore, but if something does get going in a chip generation or two it'll be neat to watch.

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