Marvell Transitions ThunderX3 to Custom Chip Platform

By Todd R. Weiss

September 3, 2020

Arm chipmaker Marvell Technologies sees custom chips as the wave of the future as customers clamor for custom-built processors to power a wide range of datacenter applications.

And to better serve that expanding market, Marvell is building out its newest chip platform, the ThunderX3 line, as a custom-only chip business that can serve any customer and product need. Marvell announced the move earlier this week in a post on its blog.

In the post, Raghib Hussain, the chief strategy officer for Marvell’s networking and processors group, wrote that strong ecosystem support and a significant opportunity for Arm-based processors in the data center is a trend that is influencing the company’s evolving ThunderX3 strategy.

“The real market opportunity for server-class Arm processors is in customized solutions, optimized for the use cases at hyperscale data center operators,” he wrote. “This should be no surprise, as the power of the Arm architecture has always been in its ability to be integrated into highly optimized designs tailored for specific use cases, and we see hyperscale datacenter applications as no different.”

The ThunderX3, which was highlighted by Marvell at the recent Hot Chips conference, is the company’s newest chip. By transitioning it into an on-demand customized chip platform, the company can boost its business compared to only building standard chips that won’t fit every customer requirement.

“Instead of a broader product to serve the largest market, we are working toward customer engagement to build the things customers want,” Chris Koopmans, vice president of Marvell’s marketing and business operations, told EnterpriseAI (HPCwire sister publication). “That’s what we’re doing going forward. We’re absolutely not abandoning this. We’re just changing the focus of the business.”

Customers are seeking chipmakers who can meet those changing needs, said Koopmans.

The Marvell ThunderX product line splashed onto the scene in late 2014, introduced by Cavium, which Marvell acquired in 2018.

Chip Specialization Drives Marvell’s Strategy

ThunderX roadmap (Hot Chips, Aug. 2020)

Marvell’s pivot into the custom chip space with the ThunderX3 comes in reaction to growing specialization in the marketplace, said Hussain. Some hyperscalers, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS), are building their own chips so they can get that depth of customization, but others may not be able to do that and must rely on chipmakers that can offer the custom chips they need, he said. AWS builds its own chips but also buys custom chips from Marvell, according to Hussain.

Chip customization offers many opportunities in the AI marketplace. “It is an area with a wide scope of applications, such as security,” noted Hussain. Marvell has developed its own AI IP and is integrating it into its products as needed.

Analyst: Decision Was Likely Made Months Ago

Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst and founder of Moor Insights & Strategy, said Marvell’s new ThunderX3 chip strategy was unveiled during a recent financial call with analysts and likely marks a decision made months ago.

The new roadmap for the custom chips is reminiscent of what AMD does for gaming machines built by Sony and Microsoft, said Moorhead.

“When you design a general-purpose chip, you have to make sure it works with everything, including every flavor of Linux or whatever else you need,” he said. “With a custom chip, you really only have to make sure it works with what you are running. With a hyperscaler, that gives them what they need, and it is easier for chip companies. That’s why most of the hyperscalers are using Intel chips.”

For customers, those custom chips require fewer engineers to do quality assurance testing and mean fewer variables when incorporating the chips into their product designs, said Moorhead. “You can do custom thermals and custom heat sinks and you don’t have to be sure it works at all ambient temperatures. It only needs to work in the boxes of the hyperscalers. It’s easier and you don’t need as many people.”

This is why AWS created its own custom chip, the Arm-based Graviton2, said Moorhead. “They are not a chip company, but they created a chip and infrastructure that is their primary go-to offering in compute. Their internal team makes it for them.”

AWS worked for seven years to create the Graviton chip, but not every company can do that on its own, he said. Even AWS will likely need help with future chips and Marvell’s new strategy could be useful for the company, he added.

“I think AWS will continue to make their own, but I think they will realize they can’t make all of their chips,” said Moorhead. “Marvell will have even more of an opportunity with Google and Azure.”

Moorhead called the decision to use ThunderX3 as a custom chip platform a good one. “Custom is the way to go,” he said. “The competition in general purpose servers from Intel and AMD is fierce. I can see Marvell being more successful in the custom market. I don’t see them doing this out of some sort of weakness, or as a bad move. They’re really the only company other than Intel to have a top to bottom product offering for the datacenter, which is unique.”

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