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Qualcomm Mulls Building Server Chips

Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf said Wednesday that the company intends to start building chips for servers using the processor architecture it has refined for mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.

Mollenkopf, pictured, was speaking at an analyst event in New York. He said Qualcomm was "in a unique position" to take advantage of cutting-edge semiconductor fabrication processes in order to sell its products into the data center for the first time.

But it will be awhile before Qualcomm has any server chips to sell, said Mollenkopf, whose comments were first reported by Barron's.

"The high end of the smartphone and the tablet really are starting to merge with what would be feasible in the data center," the site quoted the Qualcomm chief as saying. "It will take us awhile to build this business, but we think it's an interesting business."

Barron's didn't offer many more details about Qualcomm's presumptive plans to develop server chips, but it's probably safe to assume the company is eyeing ARM-based processors like several other companies looking to challenge the dominance of the x86 architecture in the data center.

Analyst Patrick Moorhead noted that while the market remains very interested in a legitimate alternative in the Intel-dominated, x86-based server market, the "entire ARM-based server ecosystem development took a lot longer to gel, which gave Intel the ability to add some very competitive server parts to their roadmap."

In September, Applied Micro Devices and Hewlett-Packard teamed up to release the first 64-bit ARM server product as part of HP's Project Moonshot. Advanced Micro Device also has a 64-bit ARM server chip code named Seattle which is sampling to customers but hasn't been officially released yet.

Qualcomm would be entering a field which has experienced "hiccups" during ARM's transition from a 32-bit to a 64-bit instruction set, said Moorhead, principal analyst for Moor Insights & Strategy.

Intel's commanding market share and technology lead also poses a major challenge, he said.

"Time is of the essence as Intel has done a great job intercepting threats by adding new compute approaches like FPGA, new products like Xeon SoC, fixed function accelerators like H.265 decoders, and server form factors with Atom. Qualcomm, to be successful, needs to hit big and hard to have the impact they want to have," Moorhead said.

Qualcomm would also face a steep learning curve in the data center market but the mobile chip giant may have the resources and dedication to make a server push work, according to the analyst.

"Qualcomm brings a different equation to the table, namely scale and IP breadth and depth, which means they can be in it for the long haul and weather the momentary ups and downs as they learn the space," Moorhead said. "But Qualcomm has no experience in the scale-out data center space. They need to invest in the technologies, namely server memory subsystems, server fabric, and high-speed networking, which are required to play in the space.

"They would be able to use their expertise in CPU, GPU, DSP, and fixed-function technologies, and they'd have to intelligently integrate it all. I expect Qualcomm to take a heterogeneous approach to servers, tightly integrating CPU, GPU, FPGA, DSP, and fixed-function accelerator technologies that scale-out datacenter providers are actively investigating."

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