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Cavium Joins ARM-Server Fray

August 20, 2012

Author: Bob Wheeler

Cavium is the leading vendor of multicore MIPS processors and has used ARM CPUs in only its low-end Econa line. That situation changed dramatically earlier this month as Cavium announced it will enter the server market with future ARM-based multicore processors. To enable it to develop custom 64-bit ARM CPUs, the company revealed it has obtained an ARMv8 architecture license. It disclosed this development project, called Thunder, but withheld product details, including any word on availability. We expect the first Thunder processors to reach production in 2H14.

Like AppliedMicro, Calxeda, and Marvell, Cavium is targeting cloud computing with its future 64-bit ARM processors, but it refused to discuss the specific workloads or applications it plans to address. The company is promising its Thunder processors will include workload-specific hardware accelerators, which should help separate these processors from competing ARM-based server processors. This approach is similar to that of the company’s Octeon devices, which include hardware acceleration for many networking tasks.

Although Cavium did not announce products, it did provide some important hints about its Thunder design. Strategically, Thunder processors will target mainstream performance points rather than low-power microserver designs. This decision pits Thunder against AppliedMicro’s X-Gene processors rather than the 32-bit quad-core chips from Calxeda and Marvell. Thunder server processors will look a lot like Cavium’s Octeon III but with ARM CPUs instead of MIPS. Thanks to its architecture license, Cavium can reuse much of its Octeon III core design as well as the overall system-on-a-chip (SoC) architecture.

Although Thunder targets a new market, it inevitably raises questions about the future of MIPS-based embedded processors. Cavium made it clear it is not abandoning MIPS for ARM in the near term. Its communications customers for Octeon have made a significant investment in software that runs on MIPS today. For example, Cisco is Cavium’s top customer, and its IOS already runs on MIPS. Eventually, however, increased availability of ARM-based processors could reduce demand for MIPS. If and when this shift occurs, Cavium can easily adjust its Octeon roadmap to match customer requirements.