ARM systems-on-chips are breaking out of their beachhead in mobile and heading to server platforms, which will introduce more low-power processors into data center configurations. But Intel may have a surprise or two for its rival chip architecture.

That's because a lot of the planned milestones for ARM-based processors we're expecting in 2014 are already in Intel's rear-view mirror. In December 2012, for instance, Intel released its own 64-bit system-on-a-chip (SoC) for servers, the Intel Atom S1200 (codenamed Centerton). The Centerton's power levels have been measured as low as 6W.

And that's just a start. Intel has already announced plans to introduce a second generation of Atom SoCs for microserver in the second half of 2013 – way ahead of any other 64-bit SoC based on ARM architecture from Applied Micro and AMD.

The new Intel Atom SoC, codenamed Avoton, will be based on 22-nm manufacturing technology and new Silvermont micro-architecture, which are expected to make it competitive against current and future SoCs based on ARM. Applied Micro's X-Gene SoC will be based on 40-nm technology, which in general offer less performance, higher power consumption, or both.

But Wait, There's More

ARM-based SoCs have other hurdles in front of them. For years, enterprise customers have coded their applications to run on Intel-based architectures. The introduction of ARM-based micro-servers will afford those customers a lot more options — but they'll have to weigh those options against the costs of hardware replacement and software migration to a whole new architecture.

In a way, ARM's software compatibility problem is a lot like the situation faced by early-to-market hybrids in the automobile market. Sure, the early Toyota Prius and Honda Insight models saved their owners money on gas. Initially, though, those cumulative savings still didn't justify the higher cost of the hybrid engine system.

That's changing now for hybrids as gas prices rise and hybrid technology gets cheaper. But that early dilemma is very similar to what new ARM chips will face: a market dominated by a single architecture and some very real overhead costs for customers who chose to migrate their software to the upstart technology.

Only when the savings from using ARM exceed those software porting costs will ARM SoCs will become more attractive to enterprise customers. And you can bet Intel has set its sights on staying ahead of that intersection in order to maintain its leadership position in the server market.

Image courtesy of Intel