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Marvell to Upgrade Server Chips to TSMC's 5-Nanometer Node

Sept. 24, 2020
Marvell Technology said TSMC's 5-nm process can improve the performance of its products by up to 20% and energy efficiency by up to 40% compared to the current state-of-the-art.

Marvell Technology plans to roll out its new generation of chips based on the world's most advanced 5-nm node by the end of next year, trying to get ahead of rivals in the market for chips used in cloud data centers, corporate networks, 5G telecom systems, and other types of data infrastructure.

The Santa Clara, California-based company said it has partnered with TSMC to develop a new portfolio of chips based on its 5-nm process for a wide range of areas, from data centers to 5G network infrastructure. Marvell said it plans to upgrade its products from TSMC's 7-nm process node, the current state-of-the-art in the global chip business, to the 5-nm node to improve on the storage, bandwidth, speed, and machine-learning capabilities of its chips in a low-power envelope.

Marvell said TSMC's 5-nm technology can improve the performance of its products up to 20% and reduce power usage by up to 40% compared with TSMC's 7-nm node, which was released in 2018.

The Silicon Valley company plans to focus on cloud data centers, enterprise networking, and 5G infrastructure as its core businesses. It is also expanding into the automobile market, which the firm sees as one of the highest growth segments of the semiconductor industry in the long run. Marvell said contracts with TSMC are already in place for many of the chips in its new portfolio. Plans are to start sampling the first 5-nm products by the end of 2021, with mass production soon after.

Marvell is trying to transform itself into a global leader in the infrastructure market with a focus on storage, networking, compute, and security capabilities in everything from data centers to telecom equipment.

The partnership puts Marvell near the front of the line for TSMC's most advanced technology, where production capacity is limited due to rising demand, said Patrick Moorhead, president at technology consultancy Moor Insights and Strategy. "TSMC only partners with a very select few companies on the bleeding-edge process nodes such as 5-nm," he added.

TSMC's largest customers include Apple, Qualcomm, Broadcom, and AMD. Recognized as the world's largest contract chip manufacturer, TSMC makes chips for about 500 customers in all.

Marvell's plan is to move most of its core products for the data infrastructure market to the 5-nm node from TSMC, packing more performance and memory into a smaller die at lower power draw.

In May, the company rolled out its latest Octeon line of network infrastructure chips, which can be used in 4G and 5G networking gear and switches, secure gateways, routers, and other solutions in data centers. They should start shipping to early customers by late 2020. Marvell said Octeon is the world's most popular data processing unit (DPU) for use in data centers and other infrastructure that enables acceleration and offload capabilities, including Smart NICs and security accelerators.

It is also challenging Broadcom in the market for networking-switch chips for areas spanning data centers to autonomous cars. Moreover, Marvell is trying to strengthen its stronghold in switch chips for corporate networks with its latest generation of Prestera ASICs and Alaska Ethernet PHYs, which it revealed last month. Also receiving an upgrade is its Thunder X line of multicore central processing units (CPUs), based on Arm Holdings technology, for use in huge cloud-computing data centers.

Marvell also recently rolled out its new Octeon Fusion family of chips to handle the throughput and latency of 5G networks, which support far faster data transfers than 4G networks. The company is gaining ground in the telecom-equipment market after it partnered with Nokia, which accounts for around 20% of the total market, to roll out a custom-designed chip with Octeon Fusion IP inside. Marvell, which is battling Intel and Broadcom in the 5G market, is also selling chips to Samsung.

"Marvell’s leaning into the leading-edge of process technology also means that the company’s roadmap is aggressive and will likely continue to gain new customers and grow existing relationships well into 2022," Moorhead said.

The firm is also expanding its business selling custom chips to large customers. Google, Microsoft, and other titans of the technology industry have started to roll out internally developed chips to run workloads, including artificial intelligence to 5G networking, faster and more efficiently than general-purpose hardware. Marvell is trying to persuade other technology giants, large corporations, and telecom equipment vendors to use its silicon-as-a-service instead of striking out on their own.

Customers can pick and choose any block of technology from its vast IP portfolio, including Arm-based CPUs, networking switches, storage controllers, Ethernet PHYs, high-speed SerDes, and encryption accelerators. Marvell said they can take advantage of any of the leading standard products in its library. The parts are assembled in a way that bolsters the performance and energy efficiency of the final product and reduces the time it takes to bring the IC to market.

"The breadth of IP we're offering to customers is what sets us apart," said Matt Murphy, Marvell's chief executive officer, on a quarterly earnings call last month. "Customers can reuse Marvell's hardened and widely deployed IP and focus their engineering team on only the unique aspects of their application, benefiting from faster time-to-market and lower risk by using our proven technology."

Marvell said that it can also use IP designed by its customers and transplant it in the floorplan of its standard products to create semi-custom designs. It has also started licensing out its standard products, including the Octeon Fusion family of chips, so that customers can add them to their homegrown chips and differentiate themselves in data centers and other areas.

Marvell last month landed a contract to custom-design a chip for a "tier-one hyperscale" customer. "We hope this is the first in a series of design wins with this important customer," Murphy said.

Marvell is bringing its leading portfolio of intellectual property, including processor subsystems, on-chip interconnect fabrics, physical-layer interfaces, encryption engines, chip-to-chip links, high-speed SerDes up to 112 Gb/s, and other building blocks, to the network infrastructure market. These technologies and more are in development right now on TSMC's 5-nm node, the company said.

Marvell indicated that this is a major turning point because it brings the pace of improvement in infrastructure chips closer to the cadence of the smartphone market. Apple recently introduced what it called the world's first 5-nm chip, the A14, for its iPads and iPhones. The chip contains more than 10 billion transistors, a generational leap of 40% compared to the A13 chip, which uses 7-nm.

Raghib Hussain, who leads Marvell's networking and processor business, said the 5-nm technology from TSMC delivers "world-class power, performance, and gate density" and, he added, is "critical for the demands of the world's leading companies in 5G, cloud, enterprise, and automotive."

The company revealed it has also partnered with TSMC to use more advanced nodes, including the 3-nm node. That gives customers in the infrastructure market a long-term roadmap, said Marvell.


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