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Broadcom quietly dismantles its 'Vulcan' ARM server chip project

Avago refuses to beam 64-bit CPU aboard, sources claim

Broadcom is shutting down efforts to develop its own server-class 64-bit ARM system-on-chip, multiple sources within the semiconductor industry have told The Register.

It appears the secretive project, codenamed Vulcan, did not survive Broadcom's acquisition by Avago and is gradually being wound down. Engineering resources have been quietly moved to other product areas and staff have left or been let go, we're told. Vulcan's designers have been applying for jobs at rival semiconductor giants, revealing that Broadcom's server-grade processor dream is all but dead, it is claimed.

According to California's employment department, Broadcom and Avago laid off 1,318 people in San Diego, Santa Clara, San Jose and Irvine this year.

All traces of Vulcan have been scrubbed from Broadcom's website: even its press release in 2013, heralding the launch of the project, has been deleted and is absent from that year's archive. The announcement was removed in March 2016, a month after Avago finished gobbling up Broadcom for $37bn. You can read a mirror of the press release on archive.org. The blurb starts:

Broadcom Announces Server-Class ARMv8-A Multi-Core Processor Architecture

IRVINE, Calif., Oct. 15, 2013 /PRNewswire/ --

  • Quad-issue, quad-threaded 64-bit ARMv8-A core with superscalar out-of-order execution delivers true server-class performance
  • Core enables 3GHz performance in the advanced 16nm FINFET process node
  • Partnership with ARM aims to define and develop an open, ISA-independent Network Function Virtualization (NFV) software environment

Broadcom Corporation (NASDAQ: BRCM), a global innovation leader in semiconductor solutions for wired and wireless communications, today announced the architecture for a new generation of multicore processors, featuring the industry's highest performance 64-bit ARM core. Using its ARMv8-A architectural license, Broadcom is developing an innovative new CPU core with true server-class performance for NFV, with best-in-class virtualized accelerators for networking, communications, big data, storage and security applications.

We're told that the team managed to produce working silicon, however the plug was ultimately pulled by bosses unwilling to invest further in the product line. Samples were supposed to be ready in 2014, then 2015, and now we're into 2016 – more than three years since the launch announcement – and there's nothing public to show.

Spokespeople for California-based Broadcom would not confirm that the chip design house remains committed to the project and declined to comment further.

We note that the biz is continuing to develop quad-core 64-bit ARMv8-A system-on-chips, such as the BCM58712 and BCM58713 announced this year, for routers, gateways and network-attached storage. These use stock Cortex-A57 cores from ARM, though, whereas Vulcan was supposed to be a ground-up ARMv8-A-compatible architecture unique to Broadcom.

The dismantling of the Vulcan project leaves the field fairly open in the ARM server system-on-chip world. Applied Micro, which designs the X-Gene ARM-compatible family of server CPUs, has been bought by Macom – which hopes to palm the X-Gene wing onto someone else, leaving that division's fate in the balance.

Meanwhile, AMD is keenly focused on its x86 Zen processor at the moment, leaving its ARM server chip plans on the shelf for now. So who's left standing? Well, there's Cavium and its ThunderX ARM data center silicon, and Qualcomm's Centriq server system-on-chip that is due to start sampling this quarter and arrive on the market in the second half of 2017.

"ARM-based servers have been hyped in the market for six-plus years, with little to show for it in terms of real customer adoption," Gina Longoria, a senior analyst at Moor Insights and Strategy, told The Register on Tuesday.

"Vendor and customer momentum appear to be waning right now, with announcements like Macom's plans to divest Applied Micro's X-Gene assets and AMD putting its ARM server plans on the back burner to focus on x86. However, the industry’s desire for an alternative to Intel remains. I'm hopeful that the years of investment in the ARM ecosystem can translate into positive market momentum over the next couple of years."

There are also rumors that Cavium is interested in buying the Vulcan blueprints from Broadcom. A spokesperson for Cavium declined to comment. ®

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