ARM backs Linux server chip start-up

Texas-based start-up Smooth-Stone has raised £31m to build and sell ARM-based server processors that offer low power consumption
Written by David Meyer, Contributor on

A US start-up chipmaker called Smooth-Stone has raised tens of millions of dollars to develop and sell ARM-based processors for servers, which ARM says will likely run Linux.

On Monday, Smooth-Stone said it was getting $48m (£31m) from a group of investors that includes venture capitalists, Texas Instruments and ARM itself. "This kind of investment, the amount, and the strength of this syndicate is a strong endorsement for the innovation we are bringing to market," Smooth-Stone chief executive Barry Evans said in a statement.

The scheme will lead to "high-performance, low-power chips that will change the server market and the makeup of datacentres," the chipmaker added.

ARM's chip architecture can be found in almost every mobile phone. Handset makers require chips to provide low power consumption to give phones a reasonable battery life — something that Intel is yet to demonstrably achieve with its foray into x86-based phone chips, Moorestown.

According to Evans, Smooth-Stone's goal is to use the ARM architecture's energy efficiency to completely remove power consumption as an issue in datacentres.

"Imagine that change for companies with a large presence on the internet," Evans said. "They all deal with the reality that as the mass of information grows daily, so does their power consumption. Every day these companies are thinking about managing their datacentre sprawl. We want to make sure that space and power are not constraining their potential."

ARM has already seen its architecture make its way into tablets and smartbooks, and is now targeting the lucrative, x86-dominated server market. The Cambridge-based chip designer has tested the viability of ARM-based server chips by running one of its own websites off such a cluster, and it is leading a European Commission-funded research project to look at delivering energy-efficient cloud-computing services to mobile devices. However, it has not previously announced its involvement in a commercial server processor venture.

Ian Ferguson, ARM's director of enterprise and embedded solutions, told ZDNet UK on Monday that the opportunity for his company was around the Linux kernel and "a new category of servers for Web 2.0 platforms".

"In terms of market size, it's probably the fastest-growing part of the server market, but relatively small," Ferguson said. "We'd be surprised if it was more than 20-25 percent of the overall server market today. This sort of low-powered capability gives you the opportunity to put blades into new areas where servers haven't necessarily gone before, for example network infrastructure equipment, where you typically have a standalone box doing the networking and a server sitting next to it — you could see integration where the server technology goes into that type of platform."

Ferguson added that he expected to see "some early systems" in the marketplace in 2011.

The Smooth-Stone board of directors includes Evans and Howard Bubb, the chairman and chief executive of fabless semiconductor firm Ambric, along with representatives from ARM, Abu Dhabi's government-owned Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), Battery Ventures, Flybridge Capital Partners and Highland Capital Partners.

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