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ARM servers form distant threat to Intel status quo

Low-power server processor designs are practically shoe-ins for the biggest Internet companies, but a lot will have to happen for them to find a home in mainstream data centers.

Do emerging ARM-based server processors have a place in the data center? If you work for Google, Facebook or a handful of other big Internet companies, most definitely. If you work anywhere else, don’t be so sure.

Recently, ARM-based server processor designs from vendors like Nvidia and Calxeda, along with Tilera’s TilePro64 processor, raised the prospect of an alternative to traditional x86 server processors in tomorrow’s data centers. For certain workloads, these RISC chips promise equivalent performance to traditional Intel designs, but consume a fraction of the energy. But there’s a catch. Organizations will need to recompile their applications to take advantage of these new processor architectures, and whether mainstream IT has the need -- or the stomach -- for recompiling is an open question.

“When you start talking about having to translate an app to another chip architecture, that takes time,” said Pete Sclafani, CIO at 6connect, a data center consulting firm that has presented low-power products to customers. “As a software person at heart, I would not look forward to recompiling,” he said.

The biggest Internet companies, with their massive energy needs, their parallel, modular open source applications and their vast hordes of programming talent, will have no such compunctions.

“The Web 2.0 guys are clearly going to latch on to anything that gives them a lower cost, because their infrastructure is just so huge,” said Karl Freund, vice president of marketing at Calxeda Inc., a startup in Austin, Teas,. working on ARM designs for the data center.

But low-power designs could make their way to the enterprise too, he said.

“There are definitely a lot of enterprise apps that do not need the performance of a high-end Intel processor,” Freund said -- for example low-end Web servers, content delivery networks and, potentially, Java virtual machines.

 Advanced enterprises are also exploring the use of parallel applications that have thus far been the province of the Internet crowd, and those applications tend to perform well on these processors.

“If you ask the Citis [Citibanks] and JP Morgans of the world about what they’re doing with Hadoop, you’re met with stony silence because they don’t want to tell you,” Freund said. His firm has fielded interest from Wall Street for its low-power designs, he added.

The availability of economical processing power could also open up a new range of applications like data mining, said Deborah Grove, founder of Grove-Associates LLC, a consulting firm focused on green IT, and blogger at GrovesGreenIT. For example, supermarkets have collected customer transaction data for decades, but as it stands, “there’s not enough processing power to economically crunch all that data,” she said. The availability of power-efficient compute resources could change that.

Last but not least, the nature of enterprise apps is changing, said Ihab Bishara, director of marketing at Tilera Corp. in San Jose, Calif. The company originally targeted its Tile processor for the embedded multimedia market, but it is also pursuing the cloud computing market.

“Enterprises are outsourcing a lot of their software licenses to Software as a Service,” Bishara said. That reduces the number of applications needed to run in their own data centers. If, at the same time, cloud providers begin adopting low-power designs, enterprises could indirectly find their applications running on processors not found in their own data centers.

The future is now
Regardless of whether low-power designs gain traction in mainstream data centers, industry observers have little doubt that change is afoot -- even if it ends up being limited to a select few.

Tilera’s Bishara said his company is squarely focused on the top 20 Internet companies, where the two biggest players -- Google and Facebook -- purchase an estimated 500,000 servers per year. Some observers put that market at about $10 billion, and Bishara thinks his business could realistically capture 10% of that over the next couple of years.

To do so, new designs must present very compelling power savings. For instance, a single upcoming S2Q server from Tilera and Quanta features eight Tilera TILEPro64 processors and replaces eight dual-socket Intel servers. But whereas the S2Q only consumes 400 watts, the equivalent x86 system would eat up between 1,500 and 2,000 watts, Bishara estimated.

If the power savings are what they appear to be, there’s little doubt in Bishara’s mind that the Web 2.0 crowd will adopt these new designs. For them, “the recompiling cost is small compared with the savings they’ll generate,” Bishara said.

Of course, Intel and its x86 ecosystem won’t go down without a fight. Working with partners like SeaMicro, Intel is positioning its own low-power ATOM processor for server workloads, which has garnered its share of interest among the Web 2.0 companies targeted by Tilera, Calxeda, et al.

Tilera’s Bishara thinks there’s room for both approaches. “Intel’s not going to rule the world forever, but at the same time they’re not going to go away any time soon. Us, we’re just trying to carve out a niche for ourselves in this $10 billion market.”

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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