By Scott Hamilton

On Sunday, Sept. 13, 2020, Nvidia and SoftBank Group Corp. (SGB) announced an agreement under which Nvidia would obtain Arm Limited from SGB and SoftBank Vision Fund in a $40 billion transaction.

This transaction brings yet another piece to the master puzzle. In July 2013, Nvidia started to increase its market share in high performance computing (HPC) through the acquisition of Portland Group, the leading developer of HPC compilers. This was the second part of the master puzzle needed to turn the graphics processor company into a full service HPC company. Compilers are the core of HPC software development and are used to optimize the human readable source code into the machine language understood by the underlying computing hardware. Nvidia was already a market leader in HPC accelerators through marketing of their graphics processing units (GPUs) as accelerators for matrix math operations.

In April 2020, Nvidia acquired Mellanox, the leader in HPC interconnects. The interconnect is the high-speed network that links the massive number of computers into a single system. This piece was important for Nvidia to improve the memory transfer rates between GPUs on separate motherboards; having control over both the internal and external hardware bus gave them the ability to engineer solutions for optimizing data transfer between the accelerators and vastly improve the overall system performance.

Nvidia was already working with Arm in the development of custom processors prior to the acquisition of Arm Limited. Arm is an open hardware platform, and the community hopes Nvidia will allow Arm to remain open, but that is still up in the air. This was the final piece to the master puzzle, making Nvidia one of the most complete HPC manufacturing and development companies.

Among the competition are Intel, which lacks a high end GPU accelerator; AMD, which lacks a high-performance interconnect; HPE which currently only integrates Intel, AMD and Nvidia hardware into custom HPC systems; and Atos which manufactures custom systems based on the same technologies, but also develops custom processor technologies.

There is a lot of worry across the HPC industry as to how this will change the Arm instruction set architecture (ISA). Up until the acquisition, the Arm ISA was completely open and a community effort, meaning there was flexibility, openness and diversity. If it remains this way, it will take the market from the currently leading Intel ISA.

The overall view from the ISA community noted four things that the merger will impact within this space that is becoming increasingly crowded. The first is that it is a nasty jolt to the x86 ISA vendors, both Intel and AMD. Apple was the first to upset this market, switching its main CPU from Intel to Arm earlier this year. Intel is likely to wake up quickly and become ISA agnostic once again as a chip manufacturer. Switching ISAs is not a big deal for Intel in the way they do business. However, it could be very bad news for AMD, who just came back into the x86 ISA market over the last few years. The best move for AMD would be to make a strong shift towards the competing RISC-V open ISA, to compete in the long run.

If Nvidia makes the mistake of closing the currently open and free Arm ISA, the RISC-V ISA will win big time in the market. Currently RISC-V is the losing ISA and Nvidia could easily seal its fate. Along the same lines, a wrong decision here could have exactly the opposite effect.

The final thing we notice about this acquisition is that the space is getting crowded, meaning all the technology is being crammed into just a few companies. This makes it difficult to land jobs in the market and to sustain competitive pricing for the components and flexibility in the options.

Until next week, stay safe and learn something new.

Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to scott.hamilton@atos.net.

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