During Computex 2019, I had the opportunity to sit down with Robert Chin who is the General Manager of the Server Business Unit at ASUS. ASUS is making a major push towards selling more AI products and enterprise solutions. For those who are not aware, ASUS is a massive company that makes everything from consumer products, to GPUs, NAS units, motherboards, and even high-density 2U 4-node server systems. The company has also been in the server industry for decades and we have been using their products for almost as long as the 10 years STH has been around.
During this interview, I wanted to get a sense of how Robert and ASUS see the market, and where they are focusing their efforts as a company to grow market share.
An Interview with Robert Chin GM of the ASUS Server BU
Patrick Kennedy: Could you just give us a little bit of history about ASUS’s server business unit?
Robert Chin: Our server business unit was established in 1995, so we have more than 24 years of experience building server, storage, and workstation products. At the beginning of our server BU, we started making OEM servers for IBM, HP, and Fujitsu. With products from these three international companies it drove our quality, reliability, and internal processes. In terms of design and manufacturing our quality is as good as IBM, HP, or Fujitsu. This year is ASUS’s 30 year anniversary. In the very beginning, our motherboard slogan was quality as solid as rock. So even when we meet customers in mainland China right now, after 30 years, they say your quality is as solid as a rock.
That’s from 1995. From 2008-2012 we sold a few hundred thousand 2U 4-node high-density servers to a large search provider. They went to data centers around the world. Because it is a certain large search engine and they are very low profile about their servers, we also kept a very low profile in terms of supporting this big customer. Another key milestone we can share is that from Supercomputing in November 2014. We topped the Green500 as #1 together with our customer in Germany. That’s very good because of the energy saving and the environmental impact that it represented. That’s another key milestone.
Last but not least is in November last year  we worked with a few partners here in Taiwan to be awarded a contract at the Taiwan National Center for High-performance Computing or NCHC. The NCHC is just like America’s different national labs and the Department of Energy. In Taiwan, it is under what we call the Ministry of Science and Technology. In this case, they made the Top500 number 20 position and number 10 in the Green500. That’s the best result for the Taiwanese government on these lists in the last 25 years. In this case, ASUS provides three different kinds of servers. This includes GPU servers, 2U 4-node high-density servers, and 1U servers. Most importantly is that ASUS, based on the customer’s requirement and RFP, did the whole software integration and coding for the customer. The customer’s requirement is to build a system to be more like a CSP’s system. This is like an Amazon AWS or Microsoft Azure. This HPC system also is for AI because the government considers 2018 is the first year of AI for the country. This work included all of the AI frameworks and AI tools like Tensorflow, pytorch, and big data applications. This was a $40M USD project, including the networking, CPU server, GPU server, and 50PB of storage and tape. The computing performance is 9 PFLOPs. The most complicated part of this project was done by ASUS with more than 50 AI engineers working on the project.
That gives you an overall history of our server business.
PK: Who are your server customers today and who are you targeting?
RC: At ASUS we have a branch worldwide in more than 60 countries around the world. So we focus our business on the whole world. Our business motto is to diversify.
We have our channel business model. Here we worked together with our business partners recruiting distributors around the world. This also includes our system integrator partners. We also have the ODM business that is based on customer requirements. We custom design the servers for them. These servers you cannot find on our standard product roadmap because the IP often belongs to those companies.
With Nelson [Wang] and his team that joined in November of last year, we are focusing on the enterprise solutions because customers are asking us for the full solution. We help our customers design their servers and to test key parts for compatibility and serviceability. Customers now, like NCHC, want not just servers, but the total solution.
For example, we work in different industry verticals such as Telecom or CSPs. In Taiwan, we have very successful cases in the semiconductor industry. As you know in Taiwan we have a very strong semiconductor industry.
PK: Going forward, what are your investment focuses? Is that really more on the software side? Is it in ODM models where you are developing that IP? Where is the investment focus?
RC: Since four years ago, every year we keep increasing our talent and headcount for R&D. This includes EE, mechanical, software, and even our sales team.
Our chairman, when he was in his previous company long ago, Acer, he was the head of server. So he knows server. He knows it and he has a passion for it. That is why in the last couple of years we kept investing in this business. Not only from the talent but also in some of these fulfillment and global logistics capabilities. We kept trying to find good partners because, especially right now with the trade climate, we need to manufacture and deliver in the right location. That is a kind of investment.
From a software point of view, definitely as ASUS alone, we cannot do everything by ourselves. So we also work together with partners. This can be from a software-defined solution point of view, a security point of view, a big data point of view, a hyper-converged infrastructure point of view, among others. We work together with partners to make sure our solutions can meet our customer’s requirements.
PK: How is your server, go to market strategy evolving? Is it still the same that it has been for the last five years or are you changing the way that you are going to market going forward?
RC: Definitely this evolves over time. It depends, for example, on our strategy for selling pure server boards, pure workstation boards, or a full system. Definitely, we need to have different partners such as EMS partners, PCBA partners, and final assembly partners. We definitely want to compete in time to market and compete with other competitors in terms of delivery.
We have several hubs including hubs in the USA, Asia Pacific, and Europe to service those markets. That lets our customers know that when they press the order we can deliver to them as soon as possible. For example now with the trade climate we are trying to diversify to find more EMS partners.
PK: Is your goal now to sell more complete systems and fewer motherboards/ barebones, or are you still trying to sell everything?
RC: Yes. We are getting this input from different customers and partners. First of all, we are not as big a Supermicro on the server side. In the very beginning, when ASUS was established 30 years ago, we established ourselves as a branded company. In our brand, we have our own notebooks, smartphones, tablets, and etc. So we have a branded company. We also have the motherboard. No matter for your notebook, your smartphone, or your server. Fundamental to them all is the motherboard. If the motherboard quality is good, then the complete system must be good.
Sometimes when ASUS provides just the motherboard or barebones and customers try to integrate parts not on our AVL, they come back to us and ask for a solution and to solve the issue. What we can provide to the customer is showing that yes, we have tested this kind of component and the quality and reliability is good. Then the customer does not have to worry.
ASUS as a global company so we have better cost competitiveness in terms of some of the key parts if we leverage that buying power leveraging ASUS as a whole. So the customer, or some of our current partners, can focus on the capability to deliver our full systems to their end customers. They can then have different value add in terms of services, in terms of system integration, in terms of a solution. ASUS helps our partners do this by providing good quality products and systems. Our current market share is still small compared to Supermicro. There are a lot of new potential customers we have not engaged yet. That’s why we would like to approach these customers with full systems. Some of the customers say to me, “Hey Robert, Supermicro is too big.” Some of our key partners are also asking us to grow faster so they can have a better choice. We are trying to grow to meet that demand.
PK: What are you seeing as exciting trends in the server market?
RC: I think I myself with more than 30 years in this PC, IT, semiconductor high tech industry, I always share with customers that there’s a Chinese novel from probably 500 years ago. In the very beginning, the very first chapter, it says the whole world changes from time to time, sometimes consolidated as one country, sometimes diversify as small countries. This reminds me of the high tech industry back to 1964 when IBM introduced the mainframe. In the old days, the mainframe dominated everything with dumb terminals. After that there were mini-computers. In the 1980’s PCs came out with the Wintel architecture. So from central to diverse.
Right now everything goes back to the central cloud. 10 or 11 years ago when AWS launched, that is going back to the central model. That is a very interesting part of this industry. You see this kind of a trend, big change, paradigm shift. Right now people say edge computing. Edge computing reminds me of the mini-computers.
Another interesting one is the AI trend. I always share with college students when I deliver lectures to them, the ABCs. I always say ABC. Those are the keywords they need to take back after my speech.
- A is AI.
- B is Big Data.
- C is Cloud Computing.
AI was introduced in 1960 in the USA. It was up for a moment. Then it went down 30 years ago when I was in college. Computing was too slow and there was not enough data. It was too hard to do this kind of trending inference. Right now because of Moore’s Law for 50 years, compute has gotten more dense, more plentiful, and cheaper. So the good thing is that AI has enough compute and data to be real, unlike 30 years ago.
That trend is good not just for our servers and storage, but also our workstations. We provide our workstation motherboards to NVIDIA. NVIDIA’s DGX Station motherboard is 100% sole-sourced from ASUS. NVIDIA claims this is the fastest machine learning workstation in the world.
PK: Are there other synergies that you get from being a business unit in the larger company other than just pricing better pricing on components?
RC: Sure. At ASUS we have more than 10 business units. The one that relates to us most is one that we call the motherboard business unit. So from the EE point of view and from the BIOS point of view we can share resources, know-how, and IP.
We just established a new business unit called AIoT. This is AI + IoT. This is one of our future focus areas. This can relate to some of our edge computing and other IoT solutions. We also have a large VGA team that is important for GPU servers as is our motherboard team.
ASUS definitely leverages these resources internally. For example, before we joined the bid for the national supercomputer center project, I reported to our chairman that we need to integrate our internal resources. We have an AI software team and a cloud software team where we have more than 400 people. We use a lot of their resources, probably more than 15% for seven months for this particular project. We have a subsidiary called the ASUS cloud. They have been there for more than 15 years. They have very good experience in terms of cloud services, enabling us to do this project. We are able to leverage these resources across ASUS to succeed.
PK: How are you working with your customers and the ecosystem to accelerate their AI journey?
RC: I think for AI it is a hot topic. I think every big and small company is trying to find what AI can do to help their business. That is looking at how AI can be an external product or solution. Internally, a lot of companies are trying to use AI to improve productivity. This is just like back in 2000 with the Internet. AI is influencing in every industry. Whether your company is a new company or an existing business unit, they are looking for an AI solution to improve their productivity. For example, we are building a new headquarters, which we were moving into in Q3 of this year. We use a lot of AI in the new building.
From the server BU point of view, our GPU servers and workstations are a good tool for companies to use as they integrate AI. In terms of AI, I think the most important thing is the platform versus the domain know-how in the industry vertical. For example, how you can use AI for healthcare to improve accuracy and speed of diagnosis. We are working with companies big and small to try to find solutions that can help.
ASUS also has an investment arm. We work together with one partner in Silicon Valley to find new companies with potential. We hope that will help our AI and server business in the future.
I wanted to thank Robert for taking a few minutes out of his busy Computex 2019 schedule for this interview. ASUS is a company that has been around the server industry for many years. The company’s newest push into the AI solutions and enterprise solutions space is a natural evolution of their business model. It shows that they want to compete with a branded solution in the server marketplace against incumbent players.
Expect more from STH on the ASUS Server BU and their products in the near future.