Marvell Refocuses Thunder Server Platforms Towards Custom Silicon Business

Yesterday during Marvell’s quarterly earnings call, the company had made a surprise announcement that they are planning to restructure their server processor development team towards fully custom solutions, abandoning plans for “off-the-shelf” product designs.

The relevant earning call statements are as follows:

“Very much aligned with our growing emphasis on custom solutions, we are evolving our ARM-based server processor efforts toward a custom engagement model.

[…]

Having worked with them for multiple generations, it has become apparent that the long-term opportunity is for ARM server processors customized to their specific use cases rather than the standard off-the-shelf products. The power of the ARM architecture has always been in its ability to be integrated into highly customized designs optimized for specific use cases, and we see hyperscale data center applications is no different. With our breadth of processor know-how and now our custom ASIC capability, Marvell is uniquely positioned to address this opportunity. The significant amount of unique ARM server processor IP and technology we have developed over the last few years is ideal to create the custom processors hyperscalers are requesting.

Therefore, we have decided to target future investments in the ARM server market exclusively on custom solutions. The business model will be similar to our ASIC and custom programs where customers contribute engineering and mask expenses through NRE for us to develop and produce products specifically for them. We believe that this is the best way for us to continue to drive the growing adoption of ARM-based compute within the server market.”

We’ve had the opportunity to make a follow-up call with the teams at Marvell to get a little more background on the reasoning for such a move, given that only 6 months ago during the launch of the ThunderX3, the company had stated they were planning to ship products by the end of this year.

Effectively, as we’ve come to understand it, is that Marvell views the Arm server market at this moment in time to be purely concentrated around the big hyperscaler customers which have specific requirements in terms of their workloads, which require specific architecture optimisations.

Marvell sees the market beyond these hyperscaler customers to not be significant enough to be of sufficient value to engage in, and thus the company prefers to refocus their efforts in towards closer collaborations with hyperscaler costumers and fulfilling their needs.

The statement paints a relatively bleak view of the open Arm server market right now; in Marvell’s words, they do not rule out off-the-shelf products and designs in several years’ time when and if Arm servers become ubiquitous, but that currently is not the best financial strategy for the current ecoysystem. That’s quite a harsh view of the market and puts into question the ambitions of other Arm server vendors such as Ampere.

The company seemed very upbeat about the custom semicon design business, and they’re seemingly seeing large amounts of interest in the latest generation 5nm custom solutions they’re able to offer.

The company stated during the earning call that it still plans to ship the ThunderX3 by the end of this year, however it will only be available through customer specific engangements. Beyond that, it’s looking for custom opportunities for their hyperscaler customers.

Marvell Refocuses Thunder Server Platforms Towards Custom Silicon Business 1

That also means we won’t be seeing public availability for the dual-die TX3 product, and neither the in-design TX4 chip, which is unfortunate given that the company had presented their chip roadmap through 2022 only a few weeks ago at HotChips, which is now out of date / defunkt.

Although the company states that it’ll continue to leverage its custom IP for the future, I do wonder if the move has anything to do with Arm’s recent rise in the datacentre, and their very competitive Neoverse CPU microarchitectures and custom interconnects, essentially allowing anybody to design highly customizable products in-house, creating significant competition in the market.

From Marvell’s perspective, this all seems to make perfect sense as the company is simply readjusting towards where the money and maximum revenue growth opportunities lie. Having a hyperscaler win and keeping it is already a significant pie of the total market, and I think that’s what Marvell’s goal is here in the next several years.

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