Qualcomm to Acquire Nuvia, Head Back Into Custom CPU Development

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Qualcomm has announced that it will acquire Nuvia, one of several ARM-based startups we’ve had our eye on for some time. Qualcomm’s purchase of Nuvia caps a several-year saga in which the company has been both all-in on its custom CPU designs and conclusively out of that market.

Back in 2017, Qualcomm’s Centriq was supposed to challenge Intel’s server dominance with more cores, lower TDPs, and highly efficient performance per watt. That never happened — after developing, showing, and even shipping the parts, Qualcomm got cold feet and backed out of the market. This may have been partly due to the general immaturity of the ARM server market at the time — AMD ultimately shelved K12 and focused on x86 for similar reasons — but it’s been three years now, and the ARM server space has continued to evolve.

Qualcomm will buy the company for $1.4B and argues that bringing the company aboard will bolster development efforts around future Snapdragon processors. What this looks like is an effort to acquire a custom CPU development team, similar to how Apple bought PA Semi all those years ago. The company states that it expects to integrate Nuvia products in all aspects of its portfolio, including flagship smartphones, next-generation laptops, digital cockpits, and ADAS (Advanced Driver Assistance Systems) solutions. Gerard Williams, Manu Gulati, and John Bruno will all be joining the company.

This would be Qualcomm’s second foray into designing its own ARM CPU core. While Qualcomm has previously built its own ARM CPUs, and actually outperformed what ARM had in-market at the same time, it’s been using CPUs that hew much closer to ARM’s standard Cortex A-series chips these past few years. While modern Snapdragon chips are still closely derived from the Cortex family, Nuvia’s chips promised to be something altogether different.

Will Nuvia’s CPUs Still Show Up in Servers?

One telling omission from Qualcomm’s PR is any statement regarding future plans for the ARM server market. Qualcomm makes no remarks on that topic, raising the possibility that while the Nuvia purchase may be intended to revitalize the company’s custom CPU design efforts and bring new silicon to market.

Nuvia’s projected performance per watt suggested it could seriously challenge x86 and even Apple. Qualcomm must have seen something they liked.

One of the arguments we’ve made at ET for why Apple’s M1 could be such a threat to x86 is because of what it might encourage other company’s to attempt, if Intel’s throne were truly vulnerable. I’m not suggesting that either this purchase or Microsoft’s declaration that it would design its own chips are solely due to the M1’s arrival — that’s both overly simplistic and too monocausal — but I would suggest that Qualcomm snapping up Nuvia, Microsoft’s own efforts, and the M1 itself are all examples of how x86’s monopoly is cracking around the edges.

The length of CPU design cycles means we’ll have to wait for a few more launches to see how things are truly shaping up. At the very least, we’re looking at the most interesting CPU market we’ve had in years, as AMD, Intel, and new ARM chips slug it out. Whether x86 ultimately emerges triumphant or not, the increased competition in the market will benefit everyone.

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