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Google Could Indeed Homebrew Its Server Chips—Just Not Soon

Rumors around the Googleplex suggest the search engine is considering making its own server chips. The news may have shaken but not stirred semiconductor legends Intel and AMD.

A Bloomberg report cites sources who suggest Google will ditch “Intel Inside” for its millions of data-center servers in favor of chip designs developed by ARM. Those low-power chips are most frequently used in smartphones, tablets and other mobile devices. ARM designs typically do not find their way into server processors.

Like other operators of massive data centers, Google is actively evaluating its opportunities to deploy ARM-based servers in lieu of the x86-based units now in place, to save upfront and ongoing costs. There are many silicon vendors actively pursuing the ARM-server opportunity, including Marvell, Calxeda and AMD.

So Google doesn’t really need to design its own processors to get those benefits. It does already design its own server motherboards for Intel processors; since those are designed for specific tasks, the servers don’t need a lot of the options featured on general-purpose boards.

The economics of chip design are very different. The upfront costs are way higher, and the production economies really favor higher volumes than a single company, even one with Google’s scale, can generate, says Nathan Brookwood, a research Fellow at semiconductor consulting firm, Insight 64.

“The only possible rationale for a company like Google to do its own [processors] would be if it had some proprietary algorithms that it wanted to implement in silicon, rather than in software,” Brookwood told ReadWrite. “Even so, the performance and/or power benefits would have to be very compelling to justify a move like the one currently rumored.”

In short, are there ARM servers in Google’s future? Most likely yes, admits Brookwood. Will Google design the chips in those servers? Most likely no.

Intel, AMD and Google did not make public statements supporting the Bloomberg report.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Robbie1, CC 2.0

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