Anything but certain
To me ARM could be successful in the server space in the same way thin clients replaced desktop PCs and Linux won the desktop war over Windows.
ARM enjoys a huge success in the end user device space because:
- End-users don't care about processors so long as they can play angry birds
- ARM's quality (low power consumption) is accentuated on small devices while its disadvantages (bad performance, bugs and incompatibilities) are well hidden by experiences already limited by slow internet connection speeds and latencies as well as small form factors.
- From the manufacturer point of view it limits dependency on the market leader Intel and enables full customization to optimize experience to form factor, e.g. with graphics gpu integration. Product lifecycles are so short that they mostly hide bugs and security vulnerabilities brought by customized silicon;
These advantages will mostly turn to disadvantages in the server space:
- End-users, in this case corporation, will care about the processor, its performance, compatibility and reliability more than performance per watt. And it remains to be seen that ARM has a performance per watt advantage over Intel offerings for server applications;
- End-users may not want to pay increased cost of heterogeneous server software licenses, services and maintenance;
- Also corporation may not want the processor to be produced by Chinese or Korean fabs;
- Server manufacturers will care less about the customizability of the processor because they know it will be a costly nightmare to fix bugs and security vulnerabilities in the silicon they produce; they will care less about all the linux kernel writing they would have to contribute and maintain to ensure adequate performance
- With much longer product lifecycle it will be harder to hide inevitable bugs and security vulnerabilities that invariably increase with multiple code/design forks;
- CPU interconnects are very hard to design with standard homogenous processors; It will be even harder on heterogeneous ARM processors;
- Assuming there is a single ARM design that “wins” and that all server ARM are the same, i.e. don’t suffer from heterogeneousness what’s the advantage over an Intel chip when Intel has arguably the best fabs in the business? Why wait for TSMC to produce server processors 2 years late on a fab process 2 cycles late?
So while ARM is clearly a potential threat to Intel’s server business, and Intel will have to improve its offering and probably lower prices, ARM supporters will face tremendous challenges in this space.
In addition Intel is already finding counter measures in the device spaces, with its latest atom arguably better than a Tegra 3 at lower power consumption. Intel will face the tremendous challenge of convincing phone and tablet OEMs to adopt its platform, on the other hand some manufacturers may not like the ARM dominance of players like Samsung (most probably already a critical supplier of other key components such as memory or screens) or the dependency on not always reliable fabs.