AMD turns back to x86 for server reboot as it downgrades ARM

AMD pulls back on its ARM server efforts as it refocuses its server strategy around x86-based Zen chips

AMD's move three years ago to rely on ARM for server chips is turning out to be a big mistake.

The company is putting its faith back in x86 chips as it seeks a reboot in servers, a market in which the company was once a big player. Riddled with chip delays and abandoned projects, AMD has downgraded ARM in its server strategy.

Instead of ARM-based servers, AMD is relying again on x86 chips, this time based on the promising Zen architecture, to take market share from Intel.

AMD shipped its first ARM-based Opteron A-series processors early this year after delays. The first server chips based on a custom ARM-based core, called K12 core, could be released next year, an AMD spokesman said, but the company's server strategy next year is centered on Zen and x86.

That point was echoed by AMD CEO Lisa Su during a talk at the Pacific Crest Global Technology Leadership Forum in Vail, Colorado, this week.

The ARM server adoption hasn't advanced as quickly as some people might have thought, primarily because of the slow adoption and performance demanded by servers, Su said.

"The demands of the data center are very, very high, and so to get to what I would call good-enough capability, we're still quite not there" with ARM-based chips, Su said.

"From our standpoint, we're going to lead with x86, she added. "The transition for us, in terms of growing share in the data center with x86, will be much faster."

However, AMD will "certainly continue to think about ARM in our portfolio," she added.

AMD cut its reliance on x86 in 2013 and focused on building server chips around ARM, which was a popular chip in mobile devices. At the time, AMD believed the low-power ARM would eventually replace the plodding x86 architecture.

But that hasn't happened, and the decision hurt AMD. Intel stuck with x86 and now dominates with a higher than a 90 percent market share in server processors.

ARM servers are still maturing and being tested. AMD also is facing a host of ARM chip competitors in Qualcomm, AppliedMicro, Cavium, Broadcom, and others, with many of those companies waiting for the market to mature so they can cash in.

AMD gave Intel a run for its money in the x86 chip market for more than a decade, so the sudden switch to ARM for servers was mysterious. AMD introduced the first 64-bit x86 server chips in 2003, and dual-core chips in 2004, which gave it a competitive advantage over Intel. Subsequent chip delays and the failure of chips based on the Bulldozer core, which started shipping in 2011, cost AMD market share.

With its high-performance Zen x86 chips, AMD hopes it'll deliver performance on par with Intel's server chips. AMD plans to release its own Zen chips for cloud servers, and also wants to couple the CPUs with its Radeon GPUs in high-performance computers.

Licensing the Zen processor designs will also be a source a revenue for AMD, Su said. The Zen processor design and system-on-chip technology has been licensed by AMD to a company called THATIC (Tianjin Haiguang Advanced Technology Investment Co.), a partnership between AMD and a consortium of public and private Chinese companies.

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