Chip startup seeks to lower electric bills in data centres

A new startup funded by major chip makers and investment firms is taking aim at electricity bills, the biggest cost in data centres.

Smooth-Stone, which on Monday announced it secured US$48 million in new funding, plans to use mobile phone microprocessors inside the high-powered computer servers used in data centres to lower their electric bills. The chips will be an alternative to server chips such as those based on x86 technology from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD). 

The headlines Smooth-Stone has already garnered, Start-up Aims to Slay Chip Goliath, and, An atom bomb aimed at Intel, suggest the technology will be available soon and effortlessly. 

But the reality is it might take a while. The company faces stiff competition and several daunting technological challenges in its quest to build good server chips using mobile phone processing cores. 

There are already companies developing such chips, including Marvell Technology and a company Google recently acquired, Agnilux, which could have products out soon. And there’s the issue of taking on Intel, a company with a history of crushing rivals.

The excitement around Smooth-Stone appears to be coming from the fact that the company has won funding from a group of investors that includes chip makers Arm Holdings, Texas Instruments, and the major investor in GlobalFoundries, ATIC (Advanced Technology Investment Company).

“This kind of investment, the amount, and the strength of this syndicate is a strong endorsement for the innovation we are bringing to market,” said Smooth-Stone CEO Barry Evans, in a statement. Evans used to work for Marvell as vice president and general manager of its cellular and handheld group, which Marvell acquired from Intel a few years earlier.

“The capital will be applied directly to the final development and market delivery of high performance, low-power chips that will change the server market and the makeup of data centres,” the statement says.

The problem Smooth-Stone is trying to solve is serious, especially in the new world of cloud computing, which is requiring more data centers. The powerful processors inside data center servers require a lot of electricity to run and give off a lot of heat. That heat leads to even more power use in data centres via the air conditioners and other cooling methods used to keep them from overheating and shutting down.

The most popular processors used inside mobile phones, and the ones Smooth-Stone and others are aiming to use in servers, come from Arm, a company with a keen focus on low-energy processors for devices that need batteries.

But Arm’s focus on mobile phones also means there are limitations the chips will have to overcome, mainly in software and calculating speeds.

The software issue is the more serious of the two because many programs for servers are written to run on x86-based processors and would have to be rewritten for Arm’s RISC-based (Reduced Instruction Set Computing) chips. It’s not a major challenge, but it would add cost and time to the effort.

Arm cores are also still made for 32-bit computing only, not 64-bit computing, a direction the IT industry is moving more speedily toward.

Arm is working to improve chip performance due to the industry move to put its cores in servers, said Mike Inglis, general manager of Arm’s processing division, during an interview in June.

But he also said the use of Arm processing cores in server-based chips is a concept being tested and could take a few years to play out. “I think the press has gotten too excited with the server discussion with Arm,” he said.

Still, Marvell plans to launch its first server chips with Arm cores later this year, a company representative said. And it has put multiple Arm processing cores inside its server chips to better compete against those made by Intel, a strategy other companies could use.

Marvell will put out a quad-core chip based on Arm’s Cortex-A9 processors to compete with Intel on speed.

“The server market, which is currently dominated by x86 processors, continues to be plagued by concerns of growing power consumption. Marvell, by exploiting ARM’s low-power technology, hopes to make inroads into the server territory with its new offering that promises a fivefold reduction in power consumption and an on-par performance compared with an x86 processor,” wrote Gartner analyst Ganesh Ramamoorthy, in a report.

Smooth-Stone and other companies looking to enter the fray could adopt a similar approach with multiple Arm cores.

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