ARM CEO: No rush to design a 64-bit server chip

ARM CEO Warren East says a sizeable chunk of today's server apps get by with 32-bit addressing

ARM is considering 64-bit extensions for its CPU designs, but their absence today doesn't harm its chances in the server market, ARM CEO Warren East said this week.

Some server applications benefit from 64-bit processors but ARM can still address a sizeable chunk of the server market with its current 32-bit designs, East said during a conference call to discuss the company's financial results.

"There are certainly server applications today for which ... a lack of 64-bit is not a barrier. A 32-bit processor is perfectly adequate to address [typically] multicore configurations and blades with multiple multicore chips," East said.

The company's upcoming Cortex-A15 is a 32-bit design that can extend to 40 bits, and ARM is considering 64-bit addressing in future processors after that, East said.

"It's logical to suppose that at some stage in the future ARM will extend its architecture in that direction, and it would certainly be helpful as and when we have those sorts of products," East said.

ARM, which licenses CPU designs to chip manufacturers such as Texas Instruments and Qualcomm, started talking about server processors in 2008, when system makers began experimenting with servers based on low-power netbook chips. The company entered the server market in November when Marvell announced an ARM-based quad-core chip for servers. Calxeda and Nvidia are also developing chips based on ARM cores.

ARM's chances in the server market depend on the server types, workloads and developers, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

A fairly high volume of servers, such as Web servers, deal with limited data sets and 32-bit addressing, which ARM can immediately address, McCarron said. Its chances are slimmer in high-end servers that need 64-bit addressing to execute tasks quickly, McCarron said.

While the server market is not easy to break into, it could be lucrative for ARM as server chips are generally priced higher than smartphone processors.

ARM will need to develop a 64-bit chip sooner rather than later if it hopes to tackle the server market, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group.

ARM-based designs could be used in high-performance computers as a low-power alternative to x86 chips, Olds said. They could serve as a co-processor on systems where graphics chips do a bulk of the number crunching.

"With HPC servers, they are going to be needing it soon," Olds said.

Indeed, ARM processors could be headed for high-performance computers through Nvidia's Project Denver, the code name for a CPU intended for PCs, servers and supercomputers. Nvidia hasn't announced a release date for the products.

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