HP has high hopes for low-energy ARM servers

HP says the biggest social media companies are chomping at the bit to try its new low-energy ARM-based server design.

Things are shaking in the realm of emerging low-energy ARM-based servers. Today, Hewlett-Packard became the first major server OEM to announce an ARM-based server, and last week, ARM Holdings announced its first 64-bit chip design. But what, if anything, does this mean for mainstream data centers?

The impetus for ARM-based servers comes from massive social media companies that want to experiment with ways to cut their energy and space consumption. The idea is to take advantage of low-energy chips designed for the embedded devices and gang them together by the thousands. The resulting scale-out cluster is sometimes referred to as a Fast Array of Wimpy Nodes, or FAWN, and excels at highly parallelized, low-transaction workloads while consuming dramatically less power than conventional Intel x86 systems.

Startups like Sunnyvale, Calif.-based SeaMicro have had some success with low-energy servers based on the Intel Atom chip, which Dell resells, but before today no major server vendor had committed to an ARM-based server. In an event at its Palo Alto headquarters today, HP took its first stab at a low-energy ARM server with the “Redstone” server platform, part of “Project Moonshot.”

As reported last week, HP is partnering with ARM startup Calxeda to create the system, which will have up to 2,880 of Calxeda’s EnergyCore servers in a rack. The servers will slide into HP’s own ProLiant Scalable System SL chassis, and will be available in limited volumes in the first half of 2012. It will be followed by designs based on other low-energy processors like Intel Atom.

The company will also open labs where potential customers can access the Redstone platform to test and port their applications. The first HP Discovery lab will open in Houston in January, followed by sites in Europe and Asia. HP also announced its Pathfinder program for partners interested in working with HP on its low-energy server efforts, including the aforementioned ARM Holdings and Calxeda, plus AMD and Linux distribution vendors Red Hat and Canonical.

ARM Holdings, meanwhile, announced its first 64-bit processor design last week, the ARMv8. This was a widely anticipated event in low-energy server circles, as a 64-bit platform enables much greater memory densities than the current 32-bit platform (a theoretical limit of 16 exabytes versus 4 GB), plus requires less re-engineering for applications written for 64-bit Linux environments. Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Applied Micro Circuits Corp. said it would begin sampling its X-Gene processors based on the AMDv8 design in the second half of 2012.

To the enterprise and beyond?
This is all heady stuff and marks a turning point away from the x86 architecture that has dominated the data center for the past decade. But will these new low-energy server designs ever trickle down to mainstream data centers, or will they be relegated to the energy-conscious Googles and Facebooks of the world?

Certainly, mainstream IT professionals care about power and space consumption. “We’re always looking at ways to improve our footprint and power efficiency,” said Matt Lavallee, director of technology at MLS Property Information Network Inc., a regional real-estate listing service in Shrewsbury, Mass. To that end, the firm purchased an HP ProLiant Scalable System SL6500 last year, which provides better power efficiency than an HP BladeSystem thanks to shared power supplies, with a comparable density and much lower initial investment.

But as a Windows shop, the prospect of ARM-based servers is still years out. In January, Microsoft said Windows 8 would support select ARM system-on-a-chip (SOC) designs, but it’s unclear whether that will extend to Windows Server, and if so, what kinds of enterprise applications would be a good fit for the platform.

For the time being, HP is setting its sights on giants of the Web world.

“Redstone is definitely optimized for this marketplace,” said Paul Santeler, vice president and general manager for HP’s Hyperscale business unit. “The processors have a long way to go before they can take on enterprise workloads,” he said.

Conceivably, low-energy servers could tackle an enterprise’s low-end Web tier, but it’s unlikely that they’d ever be a fit for database or even high-performance computing workloads, he said.

There aren’t even any guarantees for HP’s current “Redstone” offering. Its current 32-bit design limits the kind and number of applications that are good candidates for the platform.

“There are a ton of customers out there that want to kick the tires [on low-energy servers], but it really depends on the application,” Santeler said. “Some customers have said their apps will work fine with 32-bit; others have said they prefer to wait.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, Executive Editor at abarrett@techtarget.com, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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