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Low-power server market awaits 64-bit ARM chips and ARM-based servers

Erin Watkins

Few server administrators have adopted ARM-based servers and Intel Atom-powered servers, but upcoming 64-bit processor designs are reason enough to take notice.

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A product criticized for being too wimpy for real production workload beats the leader by offering higher energy efficiency.

Martin Scholl,
managing director, Infinipool

A few vendors have jumped on board the low-powered, highly scalable advanced RISC machine (ARM) server train, including Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP), Dell Inc., Boston Ltd. and some smaller vendors.

HP's newest offering from Project Moonshot, the company's initiative to develop low-energy servers, moves away from ARM chips and uses Intel Corp.'s Atom-based chips. Atom chips today typically are used in netbooks, smartphones and laptops.

One draw for using such chips is their low power and high scalability, said Martin Scholl, managing director at Marburg, Germany-based software company Global Infinipool GmbH. As cooling and power become more expensive, data center managers are feeling the pressure to find a lower-energy solution to increased capacity demands. "We haven't done real tests yet, but I expect a 90% higher efficiency will be quite easily achieved," he said.

ARM's energy efficiency should worry established chip makers such as Intel, whose x86 chips are currently at the top of the server-market food chain, according to PC component research firm Mercury Research. ARM-based chips developed by startup Calxeda and veteran Applied Micro Circuits Corp.

Applied Micro are "classically disruptive," Scholl said. "A product criticized for being too wimpy for real production workload beats the leader by offering higher energy efficiency," he said.

Applied Micro Circuits Corp. is working on a 64-bit ARM-based system-on-a-chip, the company said recently. The specs right now include 3 GHz CPU speed, as many as 128 cores per server, and 80 GBps throughput bandwidth. Compare this to Intel's Xeon E5 processors, which have 3.30 GHz clock speed, eight cores per server and 51.2 GBps throughput.

In other words, the tradeoff of these low-power chips is that even with 64-bit architecture, it takes 16 of them to equal one x86 chip.

Are ARM-based servers are gaining traction?

There's another reason these low-power alternatives to x86 chips haven't made headway, industry watchers said.

"ARM doesn't have 64-bit available yet, which is why they can't address general purpose computing," said Roger Kay, president of analyst firm Endpoint Technology Associates Inc. Power and performance have to merge for ARM-based servers to eat into the x86 market, he said. Intel still has high performance, but ARM has low power cornered.

"ARM's lack of built-out, larger-scale arch is a bit of a disadvantage, but if you can deal with that limit, power savings are a big draw," Kay said. Applications that require infrequent access to a large amount of data, such as those maintained by Amazon.com or Google, could benefit from using ARM-based servers. However, that's only 10% to 15% of the market, he said.

For the rest, there are still the powerful x86 servers, but with the emphasis on lowering costs, server vendors will want to have a foot in both markets. This again demonstrates classic disruptive behavior. ARM-based servers are the disruptors, Kay said, and they serve that 10% to 15% piece of the market that Intel currently doesn't.

Neither ARM- nor Atom-based server designs are quite ready for prime time, Kay said. ARM won't be ready for full data center use until its 64-bit designs are finalized: He estimates that will be in two to three years.


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