Nvidia's Tegra K1 chip might wind up in servers

Nvidia said it is seeing interest for the Tegra K1 chip in microservers

Nvidia's Jetson TK1 development board

Nvidia's Jetson TK1 development board

Nvidia's upcoming 64-bit Tegra K1 chip could wind up in microservers, which would lead the company into competition with ARM processor makers in that space.

The Tegra K1 chip will go into tablets, smartphones, automotive and embedded products, and servers remain a possibility, Nvidia CEO Jen-Hsun Huang said in an earnings call Thursday.

"I think we're seeing a lot of interest in putting something like Tegra in micro servers, but one step at a time," Huang said, according to a transcript of the call on SeekingAlpha.

Nvidia, known for its graphics chips, has been planning a server chip for years. In 2011, Nvidia announced it was building a new 64-bit chip called Project Denver, which would also go into servers. Later that year, Nvidia said in an interview that it was looking to pair Tegra chips with GPUs in servers, but those plans haven't yet materialized. Barcelona Supercomputing Center in Spain announced a supercomputer based on Tegra 3, but later shifted its focus to Samsung's Exynos ARM-based chips.

While the ARM CPU is important, Nvidia is betting its mobile and server future on graphics processors to speed up computing. The Tegra K1 has 192 graphics cores based on the Kepler architecture, which is used in the world's second fastest supercomputer called Titan. Nvidia has also built GRID server reference designs, which combine Nvidia GPUs with x86 CPUs, to deliver games and remote desktops. IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Dell sell servers based on the GRID design.

The key to slipping Tegra K1 easily into microservers is the software stack, which is ready, Huang said.

The software is largely written on the CUDA parallel programming tools for the company's graphics cores. The stack harnesses the joint computing of GPUs and CPUs to speed up applications. Nvidia's 64-bit Tegra K1 chip is based on custom ARM CPU.

But there could be challenges for Nvidia in entering the server market. Low-power ARM servers are drawing interest for processing and delivering Web requests, but not for supercomputing. High-performance applications like databases and enterprise resource planning are designed to work mostly on x86 and RISC processors, not ARM. Nvidia will also face intense competition from Advanced Micro Devices, AppliedMicro, Samsung and Cavium, which plan to ship 64-bit ARM chips.

Nvidia is looking for new markets in which to sell Tegra as it loses tablet and smartphone market share to Qualcomm, Allwinner, MediaTek, Intel and others. Nvidia has already said it is not interested in low-end smartphones, and its previous Tegra 4 processor has been a failure.

A 32-bit version the Tegra K1 is already available on the company's Jetson TK1 board, which started shipping to developers last week. The CPU and GPU cores deliver 300 gigaflops of performance. The 64-bit Tegra K1 chip will ship in the second half of this year.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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