Intel inside the data center isn't inevitable.​
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The Arm race in the data center

Protocol Enterprise

Welcome to Protocol | Enterprise, your comprehensive roundup of everything you need to know about the week in cloud and enterprise software. This Thursday: Arm's plan for the next generation of server chips, the Free Software Foundation descends into chaos and this year's Turing Award winners.

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The Big Story

Arm race

There was at least one thing that wasn't very complicated about the last 10 years of enterprise computing; whatever you built, wherever it ran, it was going to run on a chip made by Intel.

The next 10 years promise to be different. Intel is scrambling to regain its footing, AMD continues to crank out high-performance server chips and momentum is building behind chips like AWS's Arm-based Graviton2.

Enterprise computing is changing, and so are the chips. Arm's new designs — its "first major architectural change in a decade," according to VentureBeat — assume that machine learning and edge computing will become more widely used.

  • Arm's plan for the new generation of its core designs promises to boost performance by 30% compared to the current generation, but the days of one general-purpose server processor assuming the bulk of the load are dwindling.
  • That's why cloud providers and data center operators are starting to see more value in designing special chips for unique workloads, like machine learning or networking.
  • That trend is largely responsible for Nvidia's surge over the past few years, as its GPU chips became necessary companions to Intel's CPUs in the cloud and in data centers.
  • With this new generation, however, ARM wants to provide blueprints for server processors that can accommodate those unique, special processor types on a single chip, which also improves performance.

The vast majority of enterprise workloads still run on Intel chips. But AWS has seen some early success with its Graviton2 processors. The new Arm generation promises to address any security concerns about moving into its orbit.

  • Arm plans to add Confidential Computing features to its new designs, duplicating a big push from Intel, AMD and cloud providers over the last few years.
  • These features create secure partitions on the chip (Arm calls them Realms) that are totally separate from other parts of the chip. They can't even be seen by the operating system or hypervisor while running.
  • The Spectre and Meltdown vulnerabilities from a few years ago scared everybody straight about hardware security threats. Those were traditionally seen as far more difficult to execute against than software flaws.
  • Arm plans to release implementation details this year, but once that technology makes its way into production chips, its partners will be able to cross a potential objection off customers' lists.

There are two big caveats. Software compatibility and Nvidia's takeover proposal are two speed bumps on the road to Arm's enterprise future.

  • During the internet era, an enormous amount of enterprise software was written for the x86 instruction set used by Intel and AMD's chips. While overhauling that software to run on Arm has gotten easier, no one would say it's easy.
  • But if the price-performance benefits of Arm inside AWS continue to hold steady, startups on a budget could start from scratch on Arm. If that becomes a real trend, Microsoft and Google will follow suit.
  • We still don't know exactly what's going to happen with Nvidia's proposed $40 billion takeover of Arm, which is subject to review by several different regulatory bodies.
  • Nvidia and Arm executives have said all the right things about preserving Arm's licensing independence, but as Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger is about to find out, competing with your customers can be tricky.

It has been a long journey for Arm in the enterprise. Arm took the mobile world by storm. The data center won't be as easy.

  • Still, enterprise tech is about to have more choices when it comes to one of the most fundamental pieces of the technology stack.
  • That's good for everybody but Intel.
— Tom Krazit


"We're moving faster now than we've ever moved, and we'll never move this slow again." ICYMI, catch a glimpse of what the future looks like for developers in this Protocol interview with Stacey Shulman, VP and General Manager in Intel's Internet of Things Group for Health, Life Sciences, and Emerging Technologies.

Watch now

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Five Questions For...

Joshua Feast, CEO, Cogito

What was your first tech job?

My first tech job was working as a software developer at the New Zealand department of Child, Youth and Family. In my role, I helped build a system to support social workers dealing with family issues involving custody, mental health, abuse and more.

What was the first computer that made you realize the power of computing and connectivity?

The Commodore Amiga! One of the most popular at-home computers in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I often played games on it and even tried to build a few of my own.

What was the biggest reason for the success of cloud computing over the past decade?

The lower total cost of ownership. Furthermore, it empowers teams to focus more on the core business instead of managing software. In the contact center space specifically, cloud-based technology is fundamentally changing the way large enterprise organizations approach and scale customer interaction support.

What is one book that changed your professional mindset?

It may not be very well known, but the first thing that comes to mind is "The Beermat Entrepreneur: Turn Your Good Idea into a Great Business," by authors Mike Southon and Chris West. They discuss entrepreneurship in a way that is straightforward, simple and accessible.

Who do you look to as a mentor?

My needs for mentorship have evolved, especially in the past year. Now I look to peers that are at a similar stage of life, run similar-size companies and are experiencing similar challenges. Previously, I sought advice from those who have "been there, done that," but the problems we are facing are so specific to right now. I mean who else has dealt with remote work during a pandemic? Nobody.

Around the Enterprise


"We're moving faster now than we've ever moved, and we'll never move this slow again." ICYMI, catch a glimpse of what the future looks like for developers in this Protocol interview with Stacey Shulman, VP and General Manager in Intel's Internet of Things Group for Health, Life Sciences, and Emerging Technologies.

Watch now

Thanks for reading — see you Monday.

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