Nvidia is in the process of acquiring chip designer Arm for $40 billion. Coincidentally, both companies are also holding their respective developer conferences this week. After he finished his keynote at the Arm DevSummit, I sat down with Arm CEO Simon Segars to talk about the acquisition and what it means for the company.
Segars noted that the two companies started talking in earnest around May 2020, though at first, only a small group of executives was involved. Nvidia, he said, was really the first suitor to make a real play for the company — with the exception of SoftBank, of course, which took Arm private back in 2016 — and combining the two companies, he believes, simply makes a lot of sense at this point in time.
“They’ve had a meteoric rise. They’ve been building up to that,” Segars said. “So it just made a lot of sense with where they are at, where we are at and thinking about the future of AI and how it’s going to go everywhere and how that necessitates much more sophisticated hardware — and a much more sophisticated software environment on which developers can build products. The combination of the two makes a lot of sense in this moment.”
The data center market, where Nvidia, too, is already a major player, is also an area where Arm has heavily focused in recent years. And while it goes up against the likes of Intel, Segars is optimistic. “We’re not in it to be a bit player,” he said. “Our goal is to get a material market share and I think the proof to the pudding is there.”
He also expects that in a few years, we’ll see Arm-powered servers available on all of the major clouds. Right now, AWS is ahead in this game with its custom-built Gravitron processors. Microsoft and Google do not currently offer Arm-based servers.
“With each passing day, more and more of the software infrastructure that’s required for the cloud is getting ported over and optimized for Arm. So it becomes a more and more compelling proposition for sure,” he said, and cited both performance and energy efficiency as reasons for cloud providers to use Arm chips.
Another interesting aspect of the deal is that we may just see Arm sell some of Nvidia’s IP as well. That would be a big change — and a first — for Nvidia, but Segars believes it makes a lot of sense to do so.
“It may be that there is something in the portfolio of Nvidia that they currently sell as a chip that we may look at and go, ‘you know, what if we package that up as an IP product, without modifying it? There’s a market for that.’ Or it may be that there’s a thing in here where if we take that and combine it with something else that we were doing, we can make a better product or expand the market for the technology. I think it’s going to be more of the latter than it is the former because we design all our products to be delivered as IP.”
And while he acknowledged that Nvidia and Arm still face some regulatory hurdles, he believes the deal will be pro-competitive in the end — and that the regulators will see it the same way.
He does not believe, by the way, that the company will face any issues with Chinese companies not being able to license Arm’s designs because of export restrictions, something a lot of people were worried about when the deal was first announced.
“Export control of a product is all about where was it designed and who designed it,” he said. “And of course, just because your parent company changes, doesn’t change those fundamental properties of the underlying product. So we analyze all our products and look at how much U.S. content is in there, to what extent are our products subject to U.S. export control, U.K. export control, other export control regimes? It’s a full-time piece of work to make sure we stay on top of that.”
Here are some excerpts from our 30-minute conversation:
.: Walk me through how that deal came about, actually, kind of what was the timeline for you?
Simon Segars: I think probably around May, June time was when it really kicked off. We started having some early discussions. And then, as these things progress, you suddenly kind of hit the ‘Okay, now let’s go.’ We signed a sort of first agreement to actually go into due diligence and then it really took off. It went from a few meetings, a bit of negotiation, to suddenly heads down and a broader set of people — but still a relatively small number of people involved, answering questions. We started doing due diligence documents, just the mountain of stuff that you go through and you end up with a document. [Segars shows a print-out of the contract, which is about the size of two phone books.]
You must have had suitors before this. What made you decide to go ahead with this deal this time around?
Well, to be honest, in Arm’s history, there’s been a lot of rumors about people wanting to acquire Arm, but really until SoftBank in 2016, nobody ever got serious. I can’t think of a case where somebody actually said, ‘come on, we want to try and negotiate a deal here.’ And so it’s been four years under SoftBank’s ownership and that’s been really good because we’ve been able to do what we said we were going to do around investing much more aggressively in the technology. We’ve had a relationship with Nvidia for a long time. [Rene Haas, Arm’s president of its Intellectual Property Group, who previously worked at Nvidia] has had a relationship with [Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang] for a long time. They’ve had a meteoric rise. They’ve been building up to that. So it just made a lot of sense with where they are at, where we are at and thinking about the future of AI and how it’s going to go everywhere and how that necessitates much more sophisticated hardware — and a much more sophisticated software environment on which developers can build products. The combination of the two makes a lot of sense in this moment.
How does it change the trajectory you were on before for Arm?