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ARM upstart Calxeda pours $55m into server chip war chest

Hints at future 64-bit processors

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ARM chip upstart Calxeda is lining its coffers as it prepares to do battle with its 32-bit EnergyCore ECX-1000 processors, and two more cores in its roadmap, to conquer some corner of the server world.

Calxeda now has more than 100 employees, who work in its Austin, Texas headquarters as well as in development labs in Silicon Valley and throughout Asia, and it needs cash as it ramps up sales and etches future EnergyCore processors to handle heavy duty workloads and 64-bit code.

To that end, Austin Ventures and Vulcan Capital are kicking in some new funding, and existing investors ARM Holdings, Advanced Technology Investment Company (which owns the GlobalFoundries chip fab), Battery Ventures, Flybridge Capital Partners, and Highland Capital Partners, are putting in some additional funds for Calxeda to use to take on Intel's hegemony in the data centre.

Calxeda was founded as Smooth-Stone in January 2008 by Barry Evans, who used to run Intel's low-power x86 and XScale ARM processor business; Larry Wikelius, who was at Opteron server maker Newisys; and David Borland, who was a chip designer at Marvell, Intel and AMD. The smooth stone referenced is the one plucked from a riverbed that David used in his slingshot to kill Goliath. In its first round of funding back in August 2010, the company raised $48m, and in its second round announced today it is taking in $55m.

"This significant infusion of capital will accelerate the exciting trajectory we've been on for the past four years," said Evans, who is the company's CEO, in a statement. "Businesses require a more efficient solution for the web, cloud, and big data. That is what Calxeda is now delivering and this funding will enable us to go bigger and faster."

Calxeda does not want to build systems, but rather processors that others use in their systems. Hewlett-Packard has put the Calxeda ECX-1000 processors in its Project Redstone super-dense and experimental servers, and UK IT supplier Boston has made its own ECX-1000 servers called Viridis. Others, such as Dell's Data Center Solutions bespoke server unit, are playing around with the processors but have not announced products based on them formally yet.

Part of the problem is that 32-bit processors have limited appeal to programmers who have long-since moved on to 64-bit processing. That said, there are some workloads where 32 bits is fine, such as web serving and other modest infrastructure workloads and even some data munching workloads like NoSQL data stores and Hadoop Map-Reduce. But the real problem is that support for ARM server processors in the Ubuntu, Fedora, and openSUSE Linux distributions is still largely experimental and Microsoft has said that it will not deliver an ARM variant of its server stack with the first iteration of Windows Server 2012. (Microsoft hasn't said it would do it with SP1, either, so don't get too excited.)

Nonetheless, the opportunity that Calxeda is chasing in the data center is large, and not just because ARM chips can be packed in densely, but because the architecture includes a sophisticated distributed Layer 2 switch on each ECX-1000 that allows a cluster to scale to 4,096 nodes without any other switches being involved. This is what has Intel, AMD and others in the data center concerned because it upsets their own aspirations in both serving and networking. And that is precisely what Calxeda has been aiming to do from the very beginning.

"We will use this funding, in part, to drive an aggressive product roadmap," explains Karl Freund, Calxeda's vice-president of marketing, in an email exchange with El Reg. "We have two new products underway already that will target additional market segments. The first will be a Cortex-A15 product tailored to cloud computing, and the second will be our first 64-bit product. The former will ship in volume in about a year, and the second will be about a year after that. This puts our schedule for complete 64-bit systems in the same ballpark as all the other 64-bit ARM players. We will all be gated by the same dependency on a stable server-class OS."

All of the ARM server chip players – Calxeda, Marvell, Applied Micro Circuits, Cavium, and possibly Samsung Electronics – will also be gated by another factor. How Intel and AMD react to the ARM uprising and what they do to bring computing and networking closer together in future systems. ®

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