China’s Phytium plans to take on Intel with ARM-based Mars chips

An unknown startup from China surprised chip engineers this week with a plan to take on Intel in server chips through a 64-core processor based on the ARM architecture.

The announcement was a reminder that the biggest competition for Intel, the world’s biggest chip maker, may ultimately come from China and companies funded by the Chinese government.

Charles Zhang, director of research at Phytium Technology, spoke at the Hot Chips conference in Cupertino, California. He wasn’t able to get a visa to travel to the U.S., so he spoke to the crowd of engineers via speaker phone. The chip has 64 computing brains known as cores, and it will be based on a custom version of the ARMv8 architecture.

“This is a good beginning,” he said. “In the next few years, we will be adding a more powerful core.”

In his talk, Zhang described a 64-bit ARM server processor, dubbed Mars, aimed at high-performance computing. That’s the realm of the Xeon chip from dominant chip maker Intel. Phytium’s Mars processor may have a chance because of international politics. Intel isn’t able to sell its high-end Xeon Phi co-processor chips to Chinese companies because of U.S. export controls, said Nathan Brookwood, an analyst at market research firm Insight 64. That means that Phytium can target that market for high-end customers in China.

Guangzhou, China-based Phytium has been developing the chip for three years, Zhang said. He said that the company hopes to sell the processors outside of China. Phytium hopes its chips will be used in both scale-up and scale-out machines used in hyperscale and cloud computing. Phytium is making another variant of its chip, dubbed Earth.

The Mars processor in particular is targeted at systems that have access to huge amounts of memory and have fast paths into memory and input-output systems. Kevin Krewell, an analyst at Tirias Research, said it would be very challenging for a startup to take on the likes of Intel in the server chip market. But the fact that the company is using ARM-based technology means it will likely be able to sell its chips outside of China, he said.

Phytium’s so-called Xiaomi cores run at 2 gigahertz, and they can do complicated tasks such as processing instructions out of order. The chips are being built in a 28-nanometer process.

Zhang noted that some of the biggest server companies now do a very large chunk of their business in China, and that some of the leaders in the business, such as Huawei and Lenovo, have roots in China.

Others have tried to take on Intel with ARM-based server chips — without much success to date.


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