Will Google have its chips?
Yeah, it might...
An interesting story a few days ago from our pals Cade and TPM put forward some interesting theories about how Google’s activities and acquisitions of companies and talent might add up to the searcher building its own server chip. Plausible? Yeah, I think it might be.
We’re not talking about a chip designed to compete with the highly sophisticated Xeon or Power processors. But doing its own customized ARM implementation? It could make a lot of sense, given Google’s scale and internal needs.
As noted in the story, it’s estimated that Google has more than 1.8 million servers – which is far more than almost any other commercial company – and its box count is only going to expand from there. With that scale, even minor increases in efficiency can add up to huge dollars. Tim and Cade go through the reasoning in their well thought-out article.
For my part, I’m wondering about implications. The business of designing and producing processors (and any other computing component) is a volume game: the more volume, the lower the cost of production and the larger base over which to amortize development costs. Google would farm out production, of course; you won’t see it building its own fab facilities. It minimizes its upfront investment and cuts production time. There’s enough slack capacity out there to give Google both primary and secondary supplier options.
As for the costs involved, ARM chips – even customized ones – can be turned out in huge quantities at very low cost. Google could consume quite a bit of volume just satisfying its own demand – and even build itself out a bit more in order to bulk up their cloud computing capacity as well.
Going a bit further out on this limb, if Google adds some significant IP to its ARM implementation, why wouldn’t they try to sell it to others? If they get more bang for the buck on their own stuff, odds are that the chip will work for others too. Google could license the IP on the chip to all comers – along the lines of its other initiatives and never have to hassle with actually making or selling hardware.
Rank speculation? Maybe. But it could pencil out, business-wise, assuming that the Google version of ARM can churn out a reasonable amount of work per watt and still run cool enough to be tightly packed together. Any ARM gurus out there want to comment? ®
RISC v CISC
Correct me if I'm wrong on this but...
Currently Google use x86 CISC chips, as opposed to ARM's RISC architecture.
As the difference between the two is the instruction set being used by both could that mean that at the moment there are a shed load of CISC instructions going to waste in each processor, taking up time, space and money? If they build their own custom ARM chips they could include only the instructions needed to perform their specific cloud computing tasks?
The easy part of the discussion
I feel this article falls into the usual trap of dealing with a "Google will do this" rumor with a "after investigation, it makes sense, since they would benefit from the result".
Hell yes, and I would also benefit from building a more fuel efficient plane for my travels. But I don't.
Oh, and British Airways, as a buyer of planes, would REALLY benefit from creating a more fuel-efficient plane. But they don't.
Why is that already? Hmm, something like "they don't know how to do it/it's not their expertise/not their job" and "anything that can be done by BA can be done by Airbus and Boeing better, faster, cheaper" is coming to mind.
An article explaining to us that Google might do chips is pointless if it focuses on what it would gain from better chips.
The real question to address are OBVIOUSLY:
1- Does Google have the competences to do whatever part of the chipmaking this author wants to talk about?
2- IF they do, do they have either a need that the pros would not address (meaning probably that the market is too small to matter, ie only google would be interested), or a specific comparative advantage that makes them, non-pros, more efficient at doing this by themselves?
I'm not saying the answers aer necessarily "no".
I'm saying that by default, one has to think the answer would be "no", and that none of your readers has a clue.
And that it is precisely why that's the point the article should addres, rather than adopting the "they might do it, after all it would be useful" pose which brings absolutely nothing to the table.
Informed comment in a sea of idle speculation
Quite right Torben. Glad someone here has got a clue what they're talking about.