Report: Samsung Planning A Move Into Low-Power Server Market

Samsung may be gearing up to enter the low-power server chip space, according to a report this week from The Wall Street Journal.

The Korean electronics giant, which is known primarily in the chip market for its ARM-based processors that fuel mobile devices including the iPhone, has hired a number of former AMD execs from the server space to staff its Austin, Texas-based research and development center. Most recently, Samsung has brought on Patrick Patla, former vice president of AMD’s Opteron server chip group.

A Samsung rep confirmed Patla’s new position, but declined to comment further.

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The Wall Street Journal also pointed to Samsung’s recent hiring of Jim Mergard, former AMD vice president and chief engineer, along with Brad Burgess, former chief architect of AMD’s low-power Bobcast processors, as potential signs of a server offering to come.

Keith Hawkins, who was appointed vice president of design at Samsung’s Austin facility in April 2010, also comes from an AMD background. He had worked for the chip maker for over 15 years, also as a VP of design.

Samsung’s expansion into the server space would pit it against rival chip makers AMD and Intel, both of which already offer low-power server processors today. AMD just broadened its low-power server offering last month with the launch of its new Bulldozer-based Opteron 3200 series of chips, designed for use in one-socket, Web-hosting servers. It also announced in February its plans to acquire microserver vendor SeaMicro, which it said would strengthen its go-to-market strategy for cloud-based server technologies.

Intel grew its own server offering last month with the release of its new Xeon E5-2600 series of low-power Sandy Bridge processors. The Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant said the new family of chips keeps power costs low, while still delivering a performance boost of 80 percent compared to the previous-generation Xeon 5600 series.

Samsung’s chips rely on ARM-based architectures, however, which have been long regarded as industry leaders in the low-power space.

Next: An Analyst's Take

But, according to Gartner analyst Sergis Mushell, Samsung’s recent hiring of former AMD processor architects -– even if they do come from a server background -- doesn’t necessarily mean it’s moving into the data center space.

For starters, he noted, Samsung hasn’t traditionally played in the enterprise market. It tends to aim its popular tablet and smartphone devices at consumers, and has very little if no track record at all of reaching into enterprise-focused markets, such as servers and data centers.

What’s more, the server market today is a saturated one, with tech giants including Intel, AMD, HP, and Dell having already staked a claim. It’s also a much smaller market compared to the global consumer market in which Samsung continues to grow, meaning it may not be worth a major strategic re-direction on the company’s part.

"For them [Samsung], the size of the server market and, given their penetration in the enterprise being limited, it is difficult to see that they would enter a market that they don’t have significant end equipment for," Mushell told CRN. "Secondly, there are already existing companies going after it [the server space]. I think in the consumer market, their efforts would be a bit more beneficial."

Rather than a server market debut, Mushell speculated that Samsung’s recent hiring spree could be part of a larger effort to customize its ARM-based architectures for the mobile or PC market -- a space in which it already plays. The company today relies on standard ARM architectures, but with further customization, it could yield devices with more memory, higher frequencies, or faster performance.

"It would make more sense for Samsung to be looking at improving and making architectural changes to their ARM [standards] to address the notebook market," he said.

Although the new architects hired by Samsung would have worked primarily with x86-based platforms at AMD, Mushell said that most architects are platform-agnostic, meaning they could ramp up quickly to work with Samsung’s ARM-based architectures.