Google is said to endorse ARM server chips, but don't get excited yet

Two years ago, Google also gave the nod to IBM Power

Google is said to be working with Qualcomm to design servers based on ARM processors, which would be a significant endorsement for ARM as it tries to challenge Intel's dominance in data centers.

Google will give its public backing for Qualcomm's chips at an investor meeting next week, according to a Bloomberg report Wednesday that cities unnamed sources. If the chips meets certain performance goals, the report says, Google will commit to using them.

It would be a big vote of confidence for both ARM and Qualcomm, but if history is a guide then it's too early to say how significant the news really is. ARM won't be the first x86 alternative that Google has rallied behind, and it's unclear if the last effort has come very far.

Google's IBM Power server board Google

A test server board developed by Google with an IBM Power8 processor

Two years ago, Google made a big show of support for IBM's Power processor. It was a founding member of IBM's OpenPower initiative, which allows companies to design and build Power servers for use in, among other things, cloud data centers like those run by Google.

Google even showed a Power server board it had designed itself. "We're always looking to deliver the highest quality of service for our users, and so we built this server to port our software stack to Power," a Google engineer said at the time.

But there's been little news about the partnership since. Google hasn't revealed whether it's using Power servers in production, and last year it made only vague statements that it's keeping its options open.

Google is secretive about the technologies it uses, and it might well have plans to use both ARM and Power, but public endorsements don't tell us much, and in the case of ARM it's likely even Google doesn't know for sure.

The search giant could have several reasons for showing support for non-x86 architectures. Google probably does want to test Qualcomm's server chips, just as it tested IBM's, to see if a different architecture can shave costs off of running its vast infrastructure. A show of support from Google encourages development of the ecosystem as a whole, including tools and software, which will be important if Google decides to put a new architecture in production.

Such statements also serve to pressure Intel, giving Google some price leverage and pushing Intel to develop new, more power-efficient parts -- something Intel has done since the ARM threat emerged a few years ago.

There's been a lot of debate about whether "brawny" cores, like Power, or "wimpy" cores, like ARM, are more efficient for cloud workloads. It depends partly what workloads you're talking about, and there are also costs to consider like porting software.

Urs Holzle, who's in charge of Google's data centers, once published a paper on the topic titled "Brawny cores still beat wimpy cores, most of the time." But that was in 2010, and the ARM architecture has evolved a lot since then.

Qualcomm's ARM server chip James Niccolai

A test version of Qualcomm's ARM server chip, shown last October

Qualcomm disclosed its plan to sell ARM server chips in October, joining rivals like AppliedMicro. It showed a test chip with 24 cores running a Linux software stack, but it still hasn't said when a finished product will go on sale.

Derek Aberle, Qualcomm's president, told investors last week that shipments would begin "probably within the next year or so." But he suggested significant sales are still "out a few years."

A vote from Google could do a lot to boost its chances. But it's also hard to know where all of this will end up. The only sure thing is that the processor business is a lot more interesting than it was a few years ago.

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James Niccolai

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