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Here Come ARM-Based Servers

Here Come ARM-Based Servers
By Barry Levine

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ARM chips, while more energy efficient than x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, are also less powerful. Also, most software in data centers is written for x86. Meanwhile, Intel has aggressively been attempting to reduce the power requirements for all its processors.
 

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ARM
Hewlett-Packard
AMD
x86
Atom


ARM chips are making a big leap from mobile devices to servers. Hewlett-Packard is collaborating with a start-up company to develop servers using the processors from U.K.-based ARM Holdings, according to news reports.

The start-up partner is Calxeda, an Austin, Texas-based company partly owned by ARM Holdings. The effort is targeting companies that are looking to lower energy consumption and physical space requirements when they build large data centers. Calxeda is also reportedly in discussion with other server manufacturers, according to reports by Bloomberg News and The Wall Street Journal.

Nvidia, Marvell, Dell

Calxeda's business goal is the creation of a "silicon and software server platform based on the same energy-efficient ARM processor architecture that powers cellular handsets today," according to its Web site. The company envisions replacing a dozen Web server racks with a single rack and saving 70 percent in direct power consumption.

Other companies, including Nvidia and Marvell Technologies, have also indicated that they plan to develop ARM-based processors for servers. Dell has reportedly been researching the possibility. A new ARM chip announced last year, the Cortex-A15, offers greater memory and virtualization support, both of which appeal to server makers.

The transition of ARM from the mobile world to the data center world could indicate a major turning point in Intel's position in the computer ecosystem. Currently, Intel-based processors are used in about 90 percent of all servers, and the company has about 80 percent of the overall processor market worldwide.

Intel has made a priority of trying to get a better foothold in the world of smartphones and tablets, where ARM chips dominate. But it's going to be a challenge. A recent report from research firm DisplaySearch, for instance, projects about 50 million more tablets sold in 2017 than now, but only about 5 percent will have Intel chips.

Atom-Based Servers

ARM licenses its design to chip makers such as Texas Instruments, Samsung, Qualcomm, and Nvidia, for processors intended for mobile devices.

Intel's Data Center Group has seen growth in the last year that was nearly 15 percent more than the company's PC unit, and the server processor market is expected to reach about $9 billion in 2011. Interestingly, H-P is Intel's biggest customer in the Data Center Group.

ARM executives have noted that one of the major issues for data centers is power consumption and management, and that they expect their chips to first reside in servers that support Web-based transactions, then move into more complex and powerful environments.

But ARM chips, while more energy efficient than x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, are also less powerful. Also, most software in data centers is written for x86. Meanwhile, Intel has aggressively been attempting to reduce the power requirements for all of its processors.

Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said Intel has been pursuing partnerships with companies to build servers based on its power-efficient Atom chips, which have been primarily targeted at mobile devices. He noted that "any x86 app will run on Atom natively," a capability not shared by ARM chips.

If you "put aside the server architecture," King said, the coming of ARM-based servers might be more appropriately compared to the Atom-based ones.
 

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