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Qualcomm Advances Into AI Chips

April 30, 2019

Author: Linley Gwennap

Taking another run at the lucrative data-center market, Qualcomm disclosed plans to offer an AI accelerator for servers called the Cloud AI 100. It withheld most details of the future product but said the chip will use an all-new design rather than existing smartphone technology. Although the 7nm chip isn’t based on Qualcomm’s power-efficient mobile AI engine, the company still expects it will achieve industry-leading performance per watt for AI inference tasks. To simplify installation in servers, Qualcomm will sell the chip on a PCI Express card. It expects to sample the accelerator card in 2H19, likely leading to production shipments in 2H20.

To deliver a competitive solution, Qualcomm must develop extensive software for its new architecture. The company already offers some AI software for its mobile processors, but a data-center product will require a broader range of frameworks. Because the AI 100 implements a different architecture than Snapdragon, the underlying drivers will be completely different as well. Qualcomm plans to support Keras, MXNet, PaddlePaddle, Pytorch, TensorFlow, and other frameworks with the first AI 100 release.

The minimal information in this preannouncement indicates Qualcomm could outperform Nvidia’s AI-inference accelerators in 2020. Numerous other vendors, however, are targeting the same market with equally grandiose claims. Qualcomm is off to a late start, but it has the resources to deliver a solid product with strong software support. If it can indeed deliver a major breakthrough in performance per watt, it could certainly win a sizable chunk of business.

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