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Google snaps up Apple chip defectors for cloud servers

Agnilux, formed by PA Semi founders, working on ARM-based server chips


Published: 21 April, 2010

READ MORE: M&A | Google | Apple | Semiconductor

There seems to be no area where Google will not go head-to-head with former best friend Apple. The latest is in the unlikely world of processors, where the software giant has acquired a start-up called Agnilux, which was founded earlier this year by defectors from Apple. However, this purchase does not seem to be targeted at a new apps processor for Nexus One, which uses the Qualcomm Snapdragon, but at creating more efficient servers to run Google's web services and enhance its vision of a data world based on always-on wireless devices and the cloud.

Google would not comment beyond confirming the acquisition, which was reported by Thomson Reuters' PEHub. "We're pleased to welcome the Agnilux team to Google, but we don't have any additional information to share right now," a spokesperson said.

Agnilux was founded by Dan Dobberpuhl, also founder of PA Semi, which Apple acquired in 2008. PA's architecture powers the new A4 processor, used in the iPad and likely to turn up in other future Apple devices, reducing its dependence on the merchant market and aiming for competitive edge via hardware. In February, some of the people who formed the core of PA Semi, including Dobberpuhl, left Apple to set up Agnilux.

At the other end of the scale from PA, Agnilux fits into a nascent, but potentially significant, trend, to create massive cloud server architectures based on the ARM architecture rather than Intel or specialist silicon platforms. This would reduce cost by introducing a far larger range of suppliers and developers to the rarefied world of high performance servers, argue supporters, and would address power issues.

The most notable start-up in this field so far has been Smooth-Stone, which is building a server based on hundreds of ARM-based processors. It believes this could usher in the next wave of commodity servers, following the shift during the past decade towards lower cost, off-the-shelf blade designs using merchant rather than customized chips. Founder Barry Evans, who previously worked in Intel's ARM unit (now part of Marvell) says his architecture could "completely remove power as an issue in the data center". According to GigaOM, ARM is thought to be working on a new range of cores geared to low power, massively parallel servers, and its says Microsoft is testing ARM-based server designs.

Intel, whose x86 architecture dominates the server space, would have most to lose, though its supporters are also targeting low power cloud platforms using Atom, notably start-up Sea Micro. Other players believe the cloud requires a new approach to processor design all of its own. Tilera, for instance, received investment from majors like Broadcom recently, for its cloud server platform based on up to 512 Risc-based processors.

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