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ARM Server Technologies Get Multiple Boosts

The low-power ARM server concept recently got several big boosts as ARM Holdings, Calxeda and Hewlett-Packard announced individual and collaborative efforts.

On Thursday, ARM Holdings described its ARMv8 architecture, which is the company's first 64-bit design. The technology has already been released to some of ARM's chip-making partners. ARM Holdings expects consumer and enterprise prototypes of the new 64-bit chips to emerge sometime in 2014.

Possibly, the new 64-bit design might help move ARM into the x86-dominated server market, although 32-bit ARM servers running Linux already are available. The prospect of Windows Server on ARM still seems far off. Microsoft has had a 13-year partnership with ARM, but it's mostly been based on its Windows Embedded operating systems for handheld devices. In January, Microsoft announced that its next client OS, Windows 8, will run on ARM-based devices. The prospect of Windows Server 8 on ARM has just remained speculative as Microsoft has announced nothing definitive.

Windows Server 2008 was Microsoft's last 32-bit server. Possibly software compatibility issues may trip up Windows Server on ARM silicon as Microsoft has been moving most of its server technologies more toward 64-bit metal. However, 32-bit might not pose a disadvantage in moving to ARM, according to Martin Reynolds, a vice president and fellow at Gartner.

"One of the possibilities, if we were to go with smaller server cores, is that we might well be able to go back to 32-bit and use less memory," Reynolds said in a phone interview.

In any case, Microsoft issued a positive message about the 64-bit ARM architecture, which was ascribed to K.D. Hallman, Microsoft Corp.'s general manager.

"ARM is an important partner for Microsoft," Hallman stated in a prepared release. "The evolution of ARM to support a 64-bit architecture is a significant development for ARM and for the ARM ecosystem. We look forward to witnessing this technology's potential to enhance future ARM-based solutions."

Calxeda's Server-on-Chip Design
On Tuesday, Austin, Texas-based startup Calxeda unveiled its low-power, ARM-based, EnergyCore server-on-chip processor. Equally as important is Calxeda's newly announced partner on the technology, Hewlett-Packard (described below).

EnergyCore is capable of using as little as 1.5 watts of power, according to Calxeda. The 1.5-watt figure is for the two-core server-on-chip product. An Intel low-power Atom chip, by comparison, consumes 22.6 watts of power, according to Karl M. Freund, vice president of marketing at Calxeda, in a recorded Webcast. Calxeda's four-core chip uses 3.8 watts of power and compares favorably in that respect to an Intel Xeon two-core chip, which consumes 34.9 watts of power, Freund said.

Barry Evans, CEO and founder of Calxeda, claimed during the company's presentation that EnergyCore will enable a performance improvement that's 10 times current server technologies, and save on power consumption, too.

"A server today runs 100 watts or more of power," Evans said. "It will burn up to 80 watts of power while it's waiting for something to do."

He described the debut of EnergyCore as a major milestone for the company. It adds scaling technologies that allow the interconnection of thousands of nodes in a single fabric at low cost, Evans contended. Calxeda created an organic management mechanism to manage clusters from 1,000 nodes all of the way down to a single node. Uses might include offline analytics, big data (Hadoop), Web applications, mid-tier infrastructure such as Memcached and in-memory databases, and storage-oriented applications such as file serving and content delivery, Evans said.

Canonical has been testing EnergyCore with the Ubuntu OS for servers. Canonical Founder Mark Shuttleworth provided a recorded segment during the Calxeda announcement. He predicted that ARM was going to shake up the server and datacenter world, which is moving toward massively parallel processing. He also claimed that Ubuntu will be "natural fit" for such a world.

Investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald has also been experimenting with EnergyCore as part of its high-frequency messaging platform for financial trading.

HP's Project Moonshot
Hewlett-Packard on Tuesday issued a separate announcement about its new server development program called "Project Moonshot," which aims to apply low-power technologies for Web, cloud and massively scaled applications. HP didn't explain the origin of the project's name, but Shuttleworth is one of a few people who have taken a ride into space under the Space Adventures tourist program.

Project Moonshot has three components, according to Paul Santeler, vice president and general manager of HP's Hyperscale Computing Division. One component is the HP Redstone Server Development Platform, a proof-of-concept server that deploys low-energy processors (see photo). The initial platform uses Calxeda's EnergyCore ARM Cortex processors. However, HP plans to incorporate Intel's Atom and other energy-saving chips in the future. The current HP Redstone Server uses "more than 2,800 servers in a single rack," according to HP's announcement. The platform will be rolled out to "select customers" in the first half of 2012, according to HP.

HP's Redstone Server
[Click on image for larger view.]
The HP Redstone Server Development Platform.

A second component of Project Moonshot is an HP Discovery Lab for industry-peer testing of the low-energy server. HP expects to open a lab in Houston in January. Other sites are planned for Asia and Europe. Forrester Research analyst Richard Fichera, who has vigilantly tracked low-power ARM server developments, commented in a blog post that the knowledge gained from the labs might prove to be "more valuable in the early phases than any product revenues that flow from them." Fichera appeared during Calxeda's presentation and noted that the pump is now primed with vendors joining the effort. However, he also noted that "software compatibility is the big elephant in the room."

Finally, HP announced its Pathfinder Program associated with Project Moonshot. The program brings together various independent software companies that are developing networking, compute and storage solutions. Partners expected to join the program, according to HP's announcement, include ARM Holdings, Calxeda, Canonical, Red Hat and AMD.

On the Low-Power Server Map
Fichera concluded that ARM-based servers now "are on the industry road map," although he discounted the idea that it would "destroy Intel and AMD as server vendors." The fact that HP endorsed ARM for servers likely doesn't mean it is dropping x86.

Charles King, president and principal analyst at the Pund-IT Inc. IT analyst firm, noted that there are other low-power server options out there, including projects championed by Oracle and IBM.

"IBM has long focused on delivering power efficiency features for both its Power Systems and System z mainframes, including a host of system management solutions (mostly in its System Director and Tivoli portfolios)," King explained via e-mail. He added that these platforms are also positioned as energy-efficient solutions for server virtualization, supporting "far greater numbers of virtual machines than x86 servers."

Oracle promoted the energy efficiency of its T4 SPARC chips at the last OpenWorld conference, King indicated.

"In part, I think that [Oracle's pronouncement] was mainly a PR play -- making certain that vacillating Sun customers knew they have a next-gen platform to move to," King explained. "But the fact is that in the high-density datacenters of the future, enhanced energy efficiency and its long term OPEX benefits will be subjects of interest to virtually every enterprise."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for the 1105 Enterprise Computing Group.

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