ARM Server Rumors Swirl; Apple's A4 Could See Use as Coprocessor, Server Chip

Apple's diminutive A4 processor has been the subject of much debate and interest since it debuted earlier this year. Now, multiple analysts and industry pundits are quietly hinting that we might see the chip in servers, set-top boxes, or other content servers. Much of this last is presumably drawn from the CPU's inclusion in the next-generation AppleTV, where a combined A4+PowerVR SGX535 allow for 720p output.

In some ways, this is a very timely rumor—when we attended the GlobalFoundries Tech Conference (GTC 2010) last week we talked with ARM reprensentatives about the future performance of ARM-based products and GlobalFoundries decision to use the dual-core Cortex-A9 as a technology qualification vehicle at 28nm. The two companies outlined what they're planning for next-generation ARM products relative to current designs, as shown below:

While ARM remains resolutely focused on low-power, high-efficiency processors, the 28nm Cortex-A9 should be considerably faster than the 40nm flavor. Insomuch as the A4 is an ARM-derived design, we can assume that its performance will also scale upwards as time passes. The chance that Apple will launch a series of A4 servers or coprocessors, however, seems slim. As far as coprocessors are concerned, existing laptops are already outfitted with GeForce GPUs. Since OSX supports both OpenCL and CUDA, it seems more likely that Apple would leverage existing coprocessor infrastructure rather than starting over from scratch.

Apple could alternately field a low-power, low-cost media server built around ARM processors, but there's no sign that the company wants to jump feet first into an unproven server space with an untested product. If anything, the Apple TV itself may be the test run—Apple has chosen to leave out a hard drive, which transforms the device into something more akin to a streaming media server than a set-top box.