Marvell is moving beyond its core markets of storage, communications, and consumer chips and into the CPU business with a series of ARM-based chips called Armada. These chips put the company in a competitive position with Intel (NASDAQ: INTC), Qualcomm and nVidia and other companies with an Atom and/or ARM initiative.
Marvell (NASDAQ: MRVL) is one of only a few ARM licensees with an architecture license from ARM, meaning it can not only modify the core design of the processor, it can add to it.
Doing its own cores “gives us significant cost savings because we can make chips smaller and add a huge performance boost,” Allen Leibovitch, a marketing manager at Marvell told InternetNews.com. Marvell also has other technologies it can add to the chips, such as color processing, Blu-ray laser and XScale, which it acquired from Intel.
There are four Armada processors, each designed for distinct markets. The 100 series is for low-end devices, mobile Internet devices and connected consumer products. The 500 series is for high-end smartbooks and tablets, the 500 series is for high-end smartphones, and the 1000 series will go into high definition devices like TVs.
All will be tuned specifically for their respective markets. The 600, for instance, is designed for very low-power settings needed in a smartphone. This is where the Xscale technology comes in.
Xscale engineers work on the ARM development team and put things like low-power active and standby modes as well as core voltage and frequency scaling, so the frequency drops as it goes into standby mode.
The Armada chips are complete system-on-chip (SoCs) designs with optimized audio/video codecs, Marvell Wi-Fi/Bluetooth/FM radio devices, a SATA drive controller, PCI Express and Gigabit Ethernet. The 100 series also has XScale backwards compatibility mode while the 600 series has the aforementioned low power mode. All of the Armada processors feature Wireless MMX2 mode (WMMX2) compatibility.
In addition to the core architecture work, Marvell also has extensive software support for its ARM processors, including Microsoft Windows Embedded CE, Windows Mobile, Google Android, Linux, Maemo, Ubuntu and China Mobile’s OMS. It also has development support for Adobe Flash, Microsoft Silverlight and Real Video’s Real Player.
Such an array of product offerings would seem to put Marvell, as low-key of a $2 billion company as you will ever find, on a collision course with Intel’s Atom business, not to mention all of the many ARM licensees out there.
Leibovitch doesn’t see it that way. “We’re probably looking at the same markets, but there’s a broad range of products out there. It’s up to customers to decide. We may be competing with Intel, but we’re also partners with Intel,” he said.
Will Strauss, principal analyst with Forward Concepts, said he’d criticized Marvell for not beating its own drum more often.
“From a technology standpoint, they are a very strong competitor. They are now coming out of the background. They’ve always been very good at what they do and leaders in the markets they serve, but it’s not well-known outside of the realm of their customers,” he told InternetNews.com.
The issue for Marvell is that it’s respected among its customers, but how much attention does the top supplier of hard disk controller chips get? Even though Marvell chips are in BlackBerry phones, people buy it for the BlackBerry name, not Marvell’s.
Low-profile aside, Strauss said he believes Marvell has the technology to stake some space in the competitive embedded market. “They probably have a greater portfolio of ARM products than any other company. They are well-known in the industries they serve. They are considered legitimate players and very strong competitors by those that compete against them,” he said.