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China start-up makes noise with ARM-based server SoCs

Posted: 03 Sep 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Phytium Technology? SoC? server? ARM? CEC?

"After some evaluation, we were confident about ARM's future in high performance markets...power [efficiency] is a very important influence on product design [and] ARM has a very open business model," he added.

Although Phytium's efforts start with the China market, they do not necessarily end there.

The 64-core Mars chip is "only a beginning," said Zhang. The SoC targeting scale-up systems will be followed by Earth, targeting the larger market for scale-out systems such as those used by big data centres run by companies such as Alibaba and Baidu. While not providing details, Zhang suggests Phytium plans several families of SoCs for a variety of systems including cold-storage servers.

"Over the next few years we will decrease the power consumption and size of our chips while we increase their memory bandwidth and single-core performance," he said. "We will design several generations of cores to support scale-up and scale-out servers," he added.

The start-up's first ARMv8-based custom core, code-named Xiaomi, consumes nearly 1W at 2GHz. "That's a little high for use in scale-out servers," Zhang said.

Incidentally, the Xiaomi core was not named for China's popular smartphone company. Rather, it is the nickname of a child of a member of the design team. "We like the core as if it was our own child," quipped Zhang.

China's server market

China's server market is relatively small, but is growing faster than the global average and is dominated by domestic OEMs.

The next big milestone for Phytium is to finish the physical design of the 28nm Mars chip for a tapeout it hopes to complete by the end of the year. Zhang would not say where it will be made except to say it will not be in China, at least initially.

"China's 28nm technology is not very mature at this time, but maybe next year it will mature," he said.

Both Mars and Earth will be made in a 28nm process which Phytium considers mature, but able to deliver a high performance, low power SoC. It will consider the 16nm node for future designs.

Getting good yields for the massive 640mm2 Mars will be a near-term challenge, according to analysts.

"We have considered this situation and have done some design for manufacturing" work to address it, said Zhang. "Maybe mass production will take longer than other chips," he added, anticipating the possibility of defective samples that might need re-work.

In the longer term, Zhang knows the ecosystem for ARM-based servers is still immature, as is server SoC design in his country, a fact that keeps him humble. "China still faces a big gap with competitors in the U.S. and Europe, so we have to work hard and learn from the giants," he said.

- Rick Merritt
??EE Times

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