by Michael Kanellos
RISC vs. CISC.
The battle over which processor architecture is really the best has dragged on for nearly 30 years.
And so far, Intel (INTC)-- with its CISC (complex instruction set computing) processors-- has won in nearly every case in supercomputers, data centers, PCs and laptops because of its ability to hit performance benchmarks. RISC (reduced instruction set computing) from vendors like ARM Holdings (ARMH) have won in phones and industrial devices like smart meters, where overall efficiency and low price was required.
Calxeda, formerly known as Smooth-Stone, Marvell (MRVL) and others now say they can change the equation with ARM cores tweaked to run in servers. Their key competitive advantage is energy consumption.
A server-powered by Calxeda chips will cost half as much to make as standard Intel-based servers, according to Karl Freund, an IBM and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) alum who has just become Calxeda’s vice president of marketing. At the same time, they will consume 1/10th of the power. The power figure includes savings from air conditioning, but even with air conditioning not counted, Calxeda’s servers will use far less energy.
“The main difference is that these cores were designed for battery performance where every milliwatt counts,” he said.
When idle, Intel chips fall back into a sleep state where they consume 80 percent of their ordinary power, he said. Calxeda’s chips fall into a near comatose state. Since servers (and their processors) are really only active for 15 to 20 percent of the time, much of the power that goes into data centers is wasted right now.
“You will get a server core that’s so efficient that you won’t mind that it is 20 percent efficient” in terms of utilization, he said.
And power is a huge concern. Yahoo (YHOO) recently built a data center near Buffalo, New York so that it could cool it with winds from Lake Erie. Calxeda investor Mike Dauber of Battery Ventures asserts that many large data center customers are worried about physically being able to obtain power to run their future data centers: internal power consumption will have to increase if corporate growth is to continue.
The company is already in discussions with large server makers as well as web sites. Some large web sites like Google (GOOG) even make their own servers, potentially making it easier to gain a foothold. That websites largely run Linux instead of Microsoft (MSFT) helps too.
But it’s a big if. Several companies—Montalvo Systems, Rise, Transmeta, Cyrix, IDT, National Semiconductor (NSM) --have tried to take on Intel with cheap and/or low-powered processors. Many raised millions in VC funds and lined up partnerships with high-profile companies like IBM. Most died horrible deaths. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), which operates under a design license from Intel, has survived, but barely at times. Since it was founded in 1969, AMD has actually lost more money than it has made.
The manufacturing prowess, aggressive product roadmap, and even the sales deals Intel can put together are formidable. One executive with an Intel competitor told me once how he signed a small deal with a Taiwanese motherboard maker. Intel execs were on a plane soon after: the deal collapsed.
Even classic RISC chip vendors like IBM, Freescale (formerly Motorola) and Sun (JAVA) have been pushed to the margins. Back in 1993, Intel occupied only around 3 percent of the market for server chips. By 2003, Intel and AMD owned over 90 percent of the market.
“There is a niche there, but there is also a strong, entrenched competitor,” said Dean McCarron of Mercury Research, one of the premier research firms in processors. “If they can demonstrate significant power savings, they could find customers.”
Second big if: Calxeda is just starting. It has raised $48 million and has alliances from ARM and Texas Instruments (TXN). But the company has yet to “tape out” or finalize the blueprint, of its first chip. It does not have samples. Freund admits that Calxeda will have to beef up the number-crunching ability of the floating point unit inside its chips to meet the demands of data centers.
The chip, in fact, will only run 32-bit code. Many server apps have already graduated to a 64-bit world. (Editor’s note: just suffice it to say that 64-bit code started getting big toward the beginning of the decade.)
Freund points out that the Calxeda—unlike the vast majority of Intel wannabees that have gone before—will not directly attack Intel. It only aims to insert its chips into servers used to cache data, run Java programs or animate web sites.
“You don’t want to run Oracle or SQL Server on it,” he said. “You do not want to take them and plop them into a blade server.”
In this market sliver, the stripped-down nature of Calxeda becomes an advantage. The chip won’t contain circuitry that might really only be needed by a desktop or standard server.
“If you are going to be all things to all people, there is real estate in there that people aren’t going to use,” he said.
Calxeda means smooth stone in Latin.
Disclosure: No positions