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ARM server chip startup gets big backers

Sling-shotting a smooth stone at Intel's Xeon profits

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There are a number of ways to create a power-efficient server chip for hyperscale applications like those that run at Google, eBay, Facebook, and so on.

One is to rip damned near all of the guts out of a Xeon processor and make an Atom chip, which Intel has done. Another is to beef up a MIPS or ARM RISC processor aimed at fairly modest workloads so it can handle server workloads. A number of niche server chip makers have deployed MIPS designs, and now it is ARM's turn to take a crack at Intel.

Intel has been able to keep the x64 processors from Advanced Micro Devices inside a pretty small market share box, but the company has much to fear from the collective of innovative chip makers that have created ARM processor variants for all kinds of handheld computers and cellphones.

This rich and vibrant ecosystem may not yet quite rival that of Intel, but plenty of the key players that make these small computers based on ARM chips have the kind of expertise that would allow them to quickly - and reasonably easily - port their key backend software to a non-x64 architecture if the low-power and performance of a server-centric ARM design can be brought to market.

At least that is what an Austin, Texas startup called Smooth-Stone - so named after the five smooth stones that David picked out of a riverbed to kill Goliath with his slingshot - is going to try to do. And it is about time, really. Alternative power-efficient Power processors from PA Semi disappeared into the gaping maw of Apple, never to be heard from again.

Tilera has some clever MIPS-oid processors that are being commercialized running Linux and backed by Asian PC maker Quanta that wants to build a cloudy infrastructure business. Atom processors have their champion in SeaMicro, which has a very clever low-power cloudy server design.

Over the weekend, Smooth-Stone announced that it has lined up $48m in equity to take a run at Intel's server business. ARM Holdings, the holding company that licenses the ARM chip architecture that has myriad designs and arguably the most vibrant and energy-efficient chip designs in the world at the moment, has ponied up some of that cash, as has Advanced Technology Investment Company, the investment arm of the government of Abu Dhabi that bought the foundry business from Intel nemesis Advanced Micro Devices last year.

Other Smooth-Stone backers include chip maker Texas Instruments (which used to be the foundry for Sun Microsystems, but lost that job to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp) and three equity firms: Battery Ventures, Flybridge Capital Partners, and Highland Capital Partners.

Smooth-Stone was founded in January 2008 to bring cell phone power efficiency to the data center, and it seeks to do this by building up the ARM processors into a proper server chip. Barry Evans, who ran Intel's low-power x86 and XScale ARM clone business, is Smooth-Stone's chief executive officer. (Intel acquired the StrongARM RISC processor business from failing Digital Equipment Corp in 1998, and in 2006 sold off that XScale business to chip maker Marvell for $600m.)

Evans is joined by co-founder Larry Wikelius, who was at Opteron server maker Newisys, which sparked to life and generated $450m in server revenues before burning out, and David Borland, who is vice president of hardware engineering who has been in charge of chip designs at Marvell, Intel, and AMD.

Smooth-Stone has not divulged its ARM server chip designs yet, but is expected to talk about them by the end of the year. It will probably take several years for the chips to come to market, and that is if everything goes well; it is hard to say how long Smooth-Stone has been seriously designing the chip, but if work really began in 2008, then it could take a lot less time than many expect.

Based on the partnerships with ATIC and TI, it looks like Smooth-Stone is going to do the smart thing and double-source its ARM server chips from the get-go. ®

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