There are more than 100 licensees of ARM's core logic semiconductor technology. So what makes Smooth-Stone unique? For starters, it's going after a very different market than your typical ARM licensee, and second, it's got quite a collection of investors.
The Austin, Tex.-based firm announced this week it has raised $48 million from a cadre of investors that range from ARM itself to several venture capital firms, including Advanced Technology Investment Company (ATIC), the company that rescued AMD and helped it spin off Globalfoundries, plus electronics giant Texas Instruments.
"This kind of investment, the amount, and the strength of this syndicate is a strong endorsement for the innovation we are bringing to market," said Smooth-Stone CEO Barry Evans in a statement. "We look forward to taking advantage of the insights and know-how of these industry-leading investors."
The vast majority of ARM licensees target either embedded systems or handheld devices, thanks to its low-power design. Apple is the company's most famous licensee, with ARM-based processors in all of its handheld devices.
But Smooth-Stone plans to bring the power efficiency of the ARM processor to servers and data centers, traditionally the haven of Intel and AMD. Smooth-Stone said it will design semiconductors and software focused on energy efficiency and increasing compute density in the data center. Smooth-Stone said its customers will have "new, unseen options as they plan their future server deployments."
Power efficiency is the new watchword for data center managers and administrators. As data centers have grown in complexity and density, the biggest challenge has been electricity, not compute power. Admins could always cram in more hardware but in many locations, such as dense urban areas like New York City, can't get any more power to run the hardware.
"Our goal is to completely remove power consumption as an issue for the data center. Imagine that change for companies with a large presence on the Internet," said Evans. "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 data center sprawl. We want to make sure that space and power are not constraining their potential."
Smooth-Stone's idea is not new. SeaMicro, a Santa Clara, Calif. company, recently announced ultra-dense servers using Intel's Atom processor that it claims would cut power and space requirements by up to 75 percent. Boston-based Tilera, spun out from MIT, has announced its own processor that offers a similar low-power 64-core processor for the data center.
Both firms have the same basic premise: for certain server functions, like Web serving, a Xeon or Opteron processor is overkill. So they offer use low-power, basic processors to do simple page rendering in a fraction of the power draw of a Xeon or Opteron.
But taking on Intel and AMD with $48 million in VC money? Good luck, said In-Stat analyst Jim McGregor. "$48 million is enough to put a sign on the door for a month. You can't do a chip on that," he said.
"It's a hard stretch for ARM to catch Intel in the data center. I think ARM has the best potential in embedded and other home consumer electronics. It's a natural for them because of their low power architecture. Scaling up into the data center is a much bigger stretch," he added.
It's not hopeless, McGregor added. There are future ARM products that have not been announced, and the company may come out with something much more powerful than it has now. But he thinks the firm would be better served targeting embedded instead of the enterprise.
"Future products from ARM will have a much broader appeal because ARM is being pushed by partners to go after other market segments," said McGregor.