A former top executive at Intel is launching a new server chip company Monday, betting on Intel’s rival architecture with extraordinary timing.
Renee James, who was president of Intel under current CEO Brian Krzanich from 2013 to 2015, is now CEO of Ampere Computing, which has already produced samples of a 64-bit Arm-based server processor with plans to ship the chips in production volumes later this year. Ampere is packed with ex-Intel and AMD executives and engineers working on Skylark, a 32-core server processor.
“We are a design company, and our primary focus will be on workloads catering towards the future of the data center,” said Kumar Sankaran, vice president of software and platform engineering for Ampere, in a recent interview.
Skylark was designed by Ampere using an architectural license from Arm. The processor can run up to 3.3GHz and was designed to accommodate up to 1TB of memory per socket, Sankaran said.
It also won’t use more than 125 watts of power when running full-out, which is a key stat for cloud providers and large data center operators who spend as much money on keeping those cool as anything. Facebook even chose to locate one of its data centers near the Arctic Circle in northern Sweden to spend less on cooling and energy management.
Ampere couldn’t really have timed this better.
Server processors based around cores designed by Arm have long promised to disrupt Intel’s stranglehold on the market for processors that power cloud computing and data centers, with little to show for it: Intel’s chips, based around the venerable x86 architecture, run virtually every server on the planet. But several cloud vendors have signaled support for an Arm server chip released late last year by Qualcomm as well as a design from Cavium released earlier in 2017.
And Intel is reeling from the impact of the Meltdown and Spectre design flaws disclosed in early January, which leave almost all the computers on the planet open to a novel type of attack. It still hasn’t released an update on whether or not it has fixed patches designed to deal with the flaws despite promising to do so two weeks ago, and its relationships with major customers have grown a little frostier amid all the work needed to deal with the impact of the design flaws.
Skylark’s custom Arm-based design is affected by Spectre, which is the nastier variant of the two security holes. But Sankaran said Ampere has working software patches for potential customers running Linux on its first-generation chips, and will have a hardware design fix in place for its second-generation product.
Ampere is wholly owned and was funded by The Carlyle Group, where James has been working for a while building Ampere in stealth mode. The 250-person company doesn’t plan to build its own chip-making factories, which requires a huge investment, partnering instead with TSMC on this first generation.
James was an an Intel lifer before stepping down as president in 2015, a role she and Krzanich had proposed to Intel’s board following the retirement of CEO Paul Otellini. She’s likely familiar to Seattle-area techies of a certain age as Intel’s key representative on negotiations with Microsoft at the height of the Wintel era.
When she resigned somewhat unexpectedly two years after taking the #2 spot, she told Intel employees in an internal memo that “when Brian and I were appointed to our current roles, I knew then that being the leader of a company was something that I desired as part of my own leadership journey.”
Now all she has to do is go head to head with one of the most iconic companies in American history, a company to which she devoted decades of her life.