AMD vs. Intel: Will ARM Server Chips Tip the Balance in AMD’s Favor?

Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD  ) has, for some time now, been chasing 64-bit ARM chips for use in servers and data centers, and as a possible replacement for Intel's (NASDAQ: INTC  )  x86 server chips. AMD plans to launch ARM chips for servers in the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year. Intel controls 97% of the x86 server chips, while AMD controls just 3% of this market. How hard will it be for AMD to challenge Intel's dominance in server chips?

A history of AMD vs. Intel server chip battles
AMD has been trying to compete with Intel's x86 standard for many years. The company enjoyed considerable success about a decade ago, when it introduced the Opteron family in 2003, initially based on the ''Hammer'' architecture. The company's server chip market share peaked at 25% in 2006.Opteron chips enabled 64-bit processing a few years before Intel finally launched its own 64-bit chips.

Intel's 64-bit chips have since become the standard for server processors. As it matured, the server market gradually moved to multi-core chips, and AMD again had the upper hand when it bet the farm on multi-core chips that used the ''Bulldozer'' architecture. AMD began shipping these chips in 2011. The chips paired two integer cores with a single floating-point core, as well as various other shared components.

But, again, Intel responded quickly by building chips with more full cores that had both integer and floating point capabilities. As a result, Intel's multi-core chips, most notably its Xeon E5 line, have dominated the market. Intel sold 92% of all server processors worldwide in 2013, and accounted for 75% of server chip revenue. High-end server chips such as IBM's Power and Oracle and Fujitsu's Sparc, accounted for just 1% of server chips shipped, but 20% of overall revenue due to their much higher average selling price, or ASP.

Challenges of shifting to a different architecture
Any movement toward a new architecture would require companies to modify their software stacks to be compatible with the new architecture. The new chips would also have to first gain critical mass to make the switch worthwhile for enterprise customers. Companies that write their own software, such as Google and Facebook, are more likely to become early adopters of new technology. But for other companies, this might be a major hurdle, which would considerably slow adoption of ARM server chips.

There are also major questions regarding the actual potential of low-power servers and micro-servers, which are the main target of ARM server chips. AMD estimates that the current market for microserver chips is 4%-6%, with the potential to eventually grow to 10%-20%. Gartner is less optimistic and sees the market growing to just 5% of all server chip revenue by 2017.

A recent Tech Pro Research report revealed that only 5% of organizations are currently deploying microservers.

Source: Tech Pro Research

The research also found that organizations are not deploying microservers to replace traditional servers, but are using them to handle static elements in high-traffic networks. In other words, microservers are not likely to replace their bigger traditional counterparts.

But, Intel is not taking any chances and has diversified its server line to cover microservers as well. The mainstream category is now called Xeon E5 and is aimed at both single and dual socket servers. The company also has Xeon E7, aimed at multi-thread servers. Then there's the 64-bit Atom C2000 line, commonly known as Avoton, which is available in eight cores.

AMD can still win
But, this does not mean AMD won't benefit from its 64-bit ARM server chips. Although the company's goal to take 25% of the overall server chip market by 2017 looks overambitious, investors should remember that the company is starting from near the bottom with just 3% of the x86 server chip market. Moreover, according to the Tech Pro study, microservers are a niche market, which will allow AMD to grow its 64-bit ARM server chip business without competing directly with Intel.

The server chip market is currently worth about $12 billion. Assuming the microserver chip market grows according to Gartner's predictions, it will be worth nearly $600 million by 2017 (5% of $12 billion). If AMD takes half of this market, that would translate to $300 million in new revenue, or 5.7% of the company's 2013 revenue.

Considering a more bullish outlook, AMD achieved a peak market share of 25% in server chips in 2006. If the company manages to hit that level again by 2017, it could be looking at an extra $3 billion-$4 billion in revenue, or 56%-75% revenue growth.

Foolish takeaway
AMD might see considerable revenue growth from its 64-bit ARM server chips, without causing a dent in Intel's market share, as the new chips are likely to serve a niche market. Many current analyst estimates might be off by a big margin, and investors are advised to keep a close eye on events in the space to be ready to capitalize on any pleasant surprises that might arise in the near future.

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  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2014, at 11:47 AM, kdro wrote:

    Enjoyed reading the article.

    A question:

    from the pie chart:

    5% Currently deploying in production environments

    5% Currently deploying in both test and production environments

    isn't this 10% already?

    (+10% deploying in test environments)

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2014, at 2:39 PM, DolceTran wrote:

    Nice question kdro. The 5% currently deploying in both test and production environments represents the group that is almost done with the testing and has already started deploying microservers in production environments. But the are still in-between and cannot be classified together with the group that' 100% into deployment.

    However, it also means that this group could very soon join the 5% that have fully deployed them.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2014, at 6:13 PM, keeperoftheq wrote:

    AMD does not have to take much market share to move the needle a lot.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2014, at 6:42 PM, Invested wrote:

    Good article.

    Back to kdro's comment I was thinking the same thing when I saw the graph. With respect to the sales potential does it matter where they are deployed? If there are 10% in test 5% in prod and 5% in both test and prod I'm seeing 20% of individuals surveyed had purchased micro servers. Regardless of where they are deploying them, they still have to purchase them.

    Do you feel the sample representative of the total population? That would be nice if it were but the sample size appears to be only 167 responses.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2014, at 8:54 PM, rav55 wrote:

    @Joseph Gacinga

    "Advanced Micro Devices (NYSE: AMD ) has, for some time now, been chasing 64-bit ARM chips for use in servers and data centers, and as a possible replacement for Intel's"

    This is actually wrong and is in fact, Ashrafesque hyperbole.

    AMD is not chasing ARM server chips. They in fact design them and have released them for sampling.

    They also have released for sampling new SoC, codenamed "Seattle." This is based on ARM's upcoming Cortex-A57 architecture, meaning that it will be fully 64-bit, just like AMD's x86 processors. Seattle will support up to 128GB of RAM, integrated ten gigabit Ethernet, and AMD's "Freedom Fabric" tech, which groups low-power CPU cores together into clusters to feed them with data from the network more efficiently. AMD expects the eight- and 16-core SoCs to run at speeds of at least 2GHz.

    AMD has not been “designing (chasing) them for some time now. They in fact have been designing Seattle for 14 months before samples were announced.

    If you are going to be a journalist you really need to start checking your facts. I know you wanted dramatic entry into an otherwise insipid piece of writing but please, spare us all your clumsy hyperbole and stick to the facts.

    On October 12, 2012 AMD acquired an A50 license to produce a 64 bit ARM server core by 2014 and they are executing the plan.

    From Anand:

    “Today comes a much bigger announcement: AMD will be building Opteron processors based on a 64-bit ARM architecture. There are no product announcements today, but the 64-bit ARM Opterons will go into production in 2014. Today's announcement is about a processor license, not an ARM architecture license - in other words, AMD will integrate an ARM designed 64-bit core for this new Opteron. Update: AMD will integrate ARM's new Cortex-A50 series of 64-bit ARMv8 CPU cores.

    http://www.anandtech.com/show/6418/amd-will-build-64bit-arm-...

    Now Joseph before you start jumping up and down hysterically pointing out that AMD bought an ARM license in 2011 you should realize that license was NOT for server silicon but rather is an x86 on-die coprocessor to run RISC encoded security software in an x86 environment.

    From the Register:

    "We have introduced Seattle, our first 64-bit ARM server processor and the industry's first at 28nm technology, positioning AMD as the only SoC provider to bridge the x86 and ARM ecosystems for server applications," he said. "We are excited to announce that we have started sampling Seattle last quarter and plan to ship in the fourth quarter of 2014."

    "There's been a lot of customer interest around Seattle," said AMD's SVP and GM of global business units Lisa Su, also on the call, "certainly for the server guys, the hyperscale guys, and even some adjacent markets." The two most important things that AMD is working on in the run-up to Seattle's release, Su said, are platform development and software development – but AMD is making no promises about how much Seattle is going to bring to the company's bottom line."

    "Relative to revenue, it's probably too early to tell what's going to happen in 2015, but I'd say the interest in the platform is quite high," she said.

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2014/04/18/amds_seattle_28nm_64...

    From AMD:

    “AMD today also publicly demonstrated for the first time its 64-bit ARM-based AMD Opteron™ A-Series processor, codenamed "Seattle," running a Linux environment derived from the Fedora Project. The Fedora Project is a Red Hat-sponsored, community-driven Linux distribution, providing a familiar, enterprise class operating environment to developers and IT administrators worldwide. This Fedora Project-based Linux environment enables companies to transition to ARM-based servers without the need to integrate entirely new tools and software platforms to their IT environments. This demonstration represents a significant step forward in expanding the footprint of ultra-efficient 64-bit ARM processers within the data center.”

    http://ir.amd.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=74093&p=irol-newsArtic...

    You also have all of these pie-charts supporting your fervent wishes that AMD fail at providing ARM silicon into micro-servers. And you point out...

    “The research also found that organizations are not deploying microservers to replace traditional servers, but are using them to handle static elements in high-traffic networks. In other words, microservers are not likely to replace their bigger traditional counterparts.”

    This is a logical leap that is not supported by evidence nor the facts actually. Since there are now NO ARM microservers in the market place, your above statement is not correct. In fact ARM Microservers are likely to replace their “bigger traditional counterparts.”

    IT is the largest “money pit” in every business or enterprise entity world-wide. The stock-holders and the CFO do not care what CPU runs the IT departments servers. They do care that those costs are somehow controlled and lessened. ARM will do that. By how much we do not yet know as that is a closely held benchmark. But we do know several other facts that are germane to this discussion.

    Intel has never historically been able to compete against ARM in the market place. In fact Intel in order to sell x86 tablet silicon has to rebate the OEM’s a staggering amount of revenue. This year alone Intel is set to rebate and generate losses approaching $4 billion dollars. These losses are up from $3.1 BILLION last year. And up from $1.2 BILLION the year before. Intel now is spending $BILLIONS just to make $MILLIONS in the ARM Tablet and mobile market.

    Intel’s justification for all this is simple. They have identified an addressable market of 200,000,000 units. So their fiscal policy is to dump silicon below market value in order to capture 20% percent of that market.

    They have announced that they will have READY TO SHIP 40 million units this year all of which has a negative margin. Ready to ship does not mean sold.

    The corollary to this is that Intel enjoys a monopoly of 97% of the addressable server market.

    AMD an AMCC and others, likely Samsung, are targeting this market with the very same intensity that Intel is targeting the ARM tablet market. And they will not have to offer rebates to OEM’s because their corporate costs in fabrication and R&D is substantially lower than Intel’s, which is not to say that those companies are inferior but rather they are much leaner in order to compete with the great monopolist.

    Joseph you are in denial if you believe that Intel’s the addressable market argument does not apply to their BIG, FAT, JUICEY, PROFITABLE sever market.

    This is going to get very bloody for Intel.

    Why?

    In 2011 the total energy demand for data centers was 1.3% of the total worldwide energy output.

    http://www.techthefuture.com/energy/data-centers-use-1-3-of-...

    However by 2013 that demand skyrocketed to 10%.

    “The information and technology ecosystem now represents around 10 per cent of the world's electricity generation, and it's hungry for filthy coal.

    In a report likely to inspire depression among environmentalists, and fluffy statements from tech companies, analyst firm Digital Power Group has synthesized numerous reports and crunched data on the real electricity consumption of our digital world.”

    http://www.theregister.co.uk/2013/08/16/it_electricity_use_w...

    The problem is simple; energy offsets to lower the carbon footprint will demand energy efficient severs and the screaming stockholders will also demand that Corporate IT lower its’ light bill.

    How: by using cheap, energy sipping chips in micro-servers. The glory days of “big tin” are over. Even IBM is exiting the server market:

    "IBM leaves the x86 market at long last, signalling the end of x86′s profitability"

    http://www.extremetech.com/computing/175299-ibm-leaves-the-x...

    There is blood in the water!

    CTO’s are also dialed in to the IT industry. They read and more importantly understand specifications. They also know that ATOM is a huge disappointment and by extension ATOM server silicon shares that inglorious distinction. I have heard IT folks call ATOM "shyte on a shingle".

    CTO’s also do not read TMF.

    ENERGY use is the problem and ARM is the solution. Now before you all start going on about Microsoft server software, yadda, yadda, yadda, realise this: There is a revolution in the Data Center. That revolution is Linux. CTO’s managing Linux Data Centers are already inclined to seek more effective solutions, after all they dumped Microsoft. They will be very receptive to ARM severs.

    And if you think that Microsoft is going to allow its’ own profitable server software market to decline the way that Windows has been crushed by Android, then you are sadly mistaken.

    From 6 months’ ago: “Microsoft joins ARM server effort“

    “Microsoft has joined a new project to accelerate the development of ARM-based servers, suggesting ARM versions of products like Windows Server and Hyper-V could be in the works.

    Microsoft has participated in the development of a specification to help standardize the ARM server platform, so that software developers can create products for ARM with the knowledge they'll run on servers from a variety of manufacturers.

    Other companies that signed onto the effort, announced Wednesday at the Open Compute Project Summit in San Jose, California, include Linux developers Red Hat, Suse and Canonical, server makers Hewlett-Packard and Dell, and chip vendors AMD, AppliedMicro, Cavium and Texas Instruments. Citrix, which makes the Xen hypervisor, is also on board.”

    We go from Wintel to WinARM!

    Microsoft is not known for wasting it’s time. Since Intel is not offering ANY ARM silicon then where oh where does Microsoft intend to sell Windows NT for ARM?

    The question is NOT will ARM impact Intel monopoly position in servers, but rather how much market share will Intel lose?

    To say none or to say a lot is a reflection of your bearish or bullish attitude for Intel or AMD.

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2014, at 10:35 PM, stretcho44 wrote:

    @rav55 ....

    AMD announced a SeaMicro benchmark record using their SM15000 dense server. AMD did not say which of the SM15000 CPU configurations they used to set the record.

    Since the box supports Opteron, Xeon (Sandy Bridge, Ivy Bridge and Haswell), and ATOM configurations, why did AMD not identify the configuration they used to set the benchmark? Was it because they did not use Opteron? The only reason I could think of, was they had to use the Intel CPU configuration to reach the performance they wanted.

    AMD’s SeaMicro server product family currently supports the next-generation AMD Opteron™ (“Piledriver” core) processor, Intel® Xeon® E3-1260L (“Sandy Bridge”), E3-1265Lv2 (“Ivy Bridge”), E3-1265Lv3 (“Haswell”) and Intel® Atom™ N570 processors.

    AMD’s SeaMicro SM15000™ Server Sets Industry Benchmark Record for Hyperscale OpenStack Clouds

    http://www.amd.com/en-us/press-releases/Pages/seamicro-sets-...

  • Report this Comment On June 09, 2014, at 11:41 PM, rav55 wrote:

    @stretch044

    "AMD did not say which of the SM15000 CPU configurations they used to set the record."

    Have your carefully read the AMD's press release?

    "This is the largest known demonstration of OpenStack scalability ever. AMD achieved the record in collaboration with Canonical using the Ubuntu OpenStack (Icehouse) distribution. MaaS (Metal as a Service), part of Ubuntu 14.04 LTS and Ubuntu OpenStack, was used to deliver the bare metal servers, storage and networking. The solution is available today and is the most scalable, automated application for deploying OpenStack in hyperscale environments. "

    Why collaborate with Canonical? Hmmmm...could it be that:

    "Canonical ships Ubuntu 14.04 LTS with support for 64-bit ARM servers and OpenStack Icehouse"

    http://www.v3.co.uk/v3-uk/news/2339963/canonical-ships-ubunt...

    What does that tell you?

    AMD's announcement was for the server box not for a cpu. ALL cpu's comprise the product. And the product SM15000 achieved the benchmark.

    It is also likely that SeaMicro will not be selling Intel products after AMD Sky Bridge comes on line. Pin compatible single socket ARM and x86 boards will be not work with Intel products.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2014, at 2:42 AM, pwLitespeed wrote:

    Wow. So much of this history is just plain wrong. AMD started losing server marketshare when Woodcrest launched in 2006. Before that, they peaked at about 25%. Since then, they've been on pretty much a continuous downward trend in server share, and are today below where they were *before they introduced Opteron* (in the low single-digits). Bulldozer was years after multi-core battles, and did not help AMD gain any marketshare back.

    As for ARM servers, what inherent advantage do they bring? Opteron had 64-bit processing; integrated memory controllers; and point-to-point processor interconnects when Intel had none of these things. That's the reason why Opteron was so successful - it was significanty better performing in server-class systems than the P4 architecture.

    So again, what do ARM processors bring to the server space that is provides a similarly compelling advantage?

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2014, at 8:06 AM, babyleg wrote:

    People really think AMD will overtake Intel??? Intel made $12,800,000,000.00 in one quarter! Intel's data center alone surpasses AMD's whole year earnings in 2 quarters. This company is not a sleeping giant. It produces what it can and the numbers tell the whole story of these two companies.

    Intel’s Data Center Group generated revenues of US$3.1bn in Q1 2014, up 11% from last year in its Q1 2014 results.

    AMD (NYSE:AMD) Revenue for the first quarter of 2014 of $1.40 billion, operating income of $49 million and net loss of $20 million, or $0.03 per share. The company reported non-GAAP operating income of $66 million and non-GAAP net income of $12 million, or $0.02 per share.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2014, at 11:20 AM, stretcho44 wrote:

    @rav55

    ""AMD did not say which of the SM15000 CPU configurations they used to set the record."

    Have your carefully read the AMD's press release?"

    Yes. I read the AMD press release carefully. That is why I asked. They never say and the entire system is available on all the AMD configurations.

    "AMD's announcement was for the server box not for a cpu. ALL cpu's comprise the product. And the product SM15000 achieved the benchmark."

    That should not stop AMD from identifying the server configuration clearly enough for the reader to "know" rather than to "guess".

    ""Canonical ships Ubuntu 14.04 LTS with support for 64-bit ARM servers and OpenStack Icehouse""

    That tells me that Canonical ran the benchmark for SeaMicro but Canonical announced PowerPC in the link you provided and also says they support all the other Intel CPU too.

    Even though it was a SeaMicro server box announcement, I think it would be a glaring mistake for AMD to not tout a result based on their own CPU .... even on the AMD website where they will sell the CPU.

    Thanks anyway for the Canonical info. Interesting but not the yes/no answer I was looking for.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2014, at 5:23 PM, kdro wrote:

    @invested

    "Nice question kdro. The 5% currently deploying in both test and production environments represents the group that is almost done with the testing and has already started deploying microservers in production environments. But the are still in-between and cannot be classified together with the group that' 100% into deployment."

    yes, that is what I figured but wasn't sure. Thank for the clarification to you and to DolceTran.

    " With respect to the sales potential does it matter where they are deployed? If there are 10% in test 5% in prod and 5% in both test and prod I'm seeing 20% of individuals surveyed had purchased micro servers. Regardless of where they are deploying them, they still have to purchase them."

    My thoughts exactly! Although for the fraction that are in "test" and "test and production" it probably means they haven't bought in volume, yet.

  • Report this Comment On June 10, 2014, at 7:46 PM, rav55 wrote:

    @stretcho44

    The Scalability test was for the ENTIRE SeaMicro SM15000 server product. This test confirms that SM15000 scales with all configurations.

    What you want to see is how fast each CPU/APU combination works in the server environment. That's not going to happen now.

    This was not the purpose of the test.

    This was a test of the entire SM15000 product line.

    AMD is also not going to provide those details before a product launch. Nobody does, why should that change now.

    Why help the competition? When the product launches then I am sure the benchmarks will be run by the writers.

    The ONLY other OEM working on delivering ARM servers is DELL. Since they are privately held they disclose nothing. I am sure that there are other OEM's building racks with AMD samples but we aren;t going to here about it until AMD launches Seattle sometime late this year.

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 4:00 AM, rav55 wrote:

    @kdro

    invested

    Actually the author of this piece was very selective about which data he wanted to reveal.

    "Research: 69 percent say microservers are a significant innovation"

    http://www.zdnet.com/research-69-percent-say-microservers-ar...

    One thing is beyond dispute. ARM microservers certainly have a few folks in a real twist.

    Something has to change. In 2011 the Data Center consumed 2.2% of the worlds energy output. in 2013 that went to 10%. Cloud computiing is in it's infancy and now folsk want to build an "Internet of Things".

    At what point do we begin funneling the 50% of our energy output so folks can chat, watch tv, play games and watch porn? Oh yeah and also so the NSA can track our every move?

    Data Centers must become energy efficient. ARM is forcing this innovation and they are dragging the great monopolist kicking and screaming into this competition. To even suggest that Intel will not lose market share places you in denial

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 11:37 PM, rav55 wrote:

    @babyleg

    "People really think AMD will overtake Intel??? Intel made $12,800,000,000.00 in one quarter! Intel's data center alone surpasses AMD's whole year earnings in 2 quarters."

    Why do you see the world in terms of absolutes?

    AMD is not trying to take down Intel. Don't be absurd.

    The x86 server space is a $13 BILLION addressable market and it is growing.

    AMD just intends to tear off a piece slightly bigger that it now has for itself.

    That is also AMCC's intention, and Cavium's intention. Not to mention IBM Power8 at the very profitable "heavy metal" data center end.

    AMD just wants a piece of the action. As Johnny Sacks would say, AMD wants to "wet their beak."

  • Report this Comment On June 11, 2014, at 11:40 PM, rav55 wrote:

    Have you ever really wondered why AMD bought SeaMicro, are releasing ARM APU and x86 APU both HSA GCN compatible sever silicon and then developed Sky-Bridge?

    AMD's recent Sky-Bridge announcement demonstrated an unexpected technical evolution but an evolution that never-the-less made sense.

    Then I realized that the technical obstacles to overcome to get two different architectures to run on a single socket pin compatible mobo design had to be enormous. The benefits from economy of scale could not really be the full measure of that achievement.

    Reading some past PR announcements from AMCC and the now defunct Calxeda a phrase appeared that suggested that multi-core ARM servers better fit the description of clusters.

    Looking forward on AMD's road map we see Ambidextrous computing with ARM and x86 APU's.

    AMD's SeaMicro is not only building multicore ARM APU and x86 APU server's they are building Cluster Workstations. Almost any consumer O/S will be compatible from Windows, Apple iOS, Linux you name it. This will also change the HPGPU landscape as well.

    Why build an x86-64 APU as server silicon? Why build ARM-64 with HSA Graphic Core next compliant GPU on die? Sure you will get some performance gains but where will you get staggering performance gains? Graphic Work stations! SeaMicro is building desktop cluster supercomputers.

    That is why AMD bought an in-house OEM with a proprietary fabric technology the only way they could put their ARM-64 and x86-64 Graphic Cluster Workstation in the market is to build it themselves.

    Oh yeah and sell servers too!

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