Intel, ARM Share Space in HP's Project Moonshot

By Jeffrey Burt  |  Posted 2013-04-09

Intel, ARM Share Space in HP's Project Moonshot

NEW YORK—Hewlett-Packard may have kicked off its Project Moonshot effort with longtime partner Intel, but the initiative will rapidly grow to include other chip makers, from Advanced Micro Devices to various manufacturers of ARM-based processors.

HP's Moonshot program—which will offer very dense, ultra-low-power servers aimed at helping organizations deal with the rapidly increasing storage, networking and processor demands brought on by cloud computing, big data and other trends—will become another battleground in the growing competition between Intel and ARM.

And that's as it should be, according to HP officials. The program's goal is to create what Dave Donatelli, executive vice president and general manager of HP's Enterprise Group, calls "software-defined servers"—systems customized for particular workloads, offering a mix of technologies (not only processors, but also such components as GPUs and memory) and defined by the applications that run on them. Organizations choose whatever system would work best for their workload needs.

The changing dynamics within the data center are driving businesses to look for other options besides the general-purpose systems that are available to them, according to Mark Potter, senior vice president and general manager of HP's Industry Standard Servers and Software Group. Facebook designs many of its own systems, while others look to white-box makers.

HP officials say they now can get the same power, space and cost efficiencies—and customization—with the Moonshot systems. The various processor options are a key part of that.

HP surprised the industry in 2011 when officials first announced Project Moonshot, saying they were going to partner with ARM chip maker Calxeda. HP was the first major systems OEM to embrace the ARM architecture for servers. Dell has since begun its own work in this area, with such chip makers as  Calxeda, Applied Micro and Marvell.

At the same time, Intel was continuing to work to drive down the power consumption in its Atom platform, and its Centerton chips will be the ones in this initial round of commercial Moonshot servers. Intel officials at the Intel Developers Forum in Beijing this week also are showing off the upcoming next-generation "Avoton" chips, which will be released in the second half of the year.

Officials with ARM and a number of its partners were at the HP Moonshot event here April 8. Lakshmi Mandyam, director of ARM's Server and Ecosystems unit, said there were six chip and three software partners at the HP event, which she said was "a great example" of how collaboration drives innovation. In an interview with eWEEK here, Mandyam also noted that HP's model for the Moonshot initiatives mirrors what ARM has done in growing its partnerships in both hardware and software.

"It's really about the ecosystem," she said.

Mandyam pointed to that ecosystem as a core element in the server opportunity opening up for ARM, which is far better known for the low-power systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) that run in most smartphones and tablets. However, executives have been eyeing the data center for the past few years, and Mandyam said the opportunity is there.

Chip makers like Calxeda, Applied Micro and Marvell—which license ARM designs—already are offering server chips. In addition, ARM partners with Linux distributors Red Hat, Canonical and Ubuntu, and helped launch Linaro—which helps developers create software and tools for the ARM architecture—in 2010. All of them were at the Moonshot launch.


Intel, ARM Share Space in HP’s Project Moonshot

Calxeda officials said April 9 that their technology will appear in a Moonshot system launching later this year. The system will offer four of Calxeda's ECX-1000 SoCs that run at 1.4GHz, and each offer 4GB of memory. Meanwhile, Texas Instruments officials noted that their Keystone II-based quad-core SoCs also will be used in HP's Moonshot initiative.

"The scalability and high performance, coupled with the low-power requirements of the HP Moonshot System, enables customers to develop solutions that address ever-changing and demanding market needs in the high-performance computing, cloud computing and communications infrastructure markets," Brian Glinsman, vice president, of processors at Texas Instruments, said in a statement. "Our SoCs are an ideal solution for customers requiring this level of performance and a low-power envelope, and we are excited about the opportunities our collaboration with HP brings to the market."

Intel officials have been vocal about the strengths of their Atom platform over the ARM architecture for servers, from its 64-bit capabilities and other features to the familiar x86 programming tools. They also have noted that when Avoton is released later this year, ARM will still be waiting for the launch of its upcoming ARMv8 architecture, which will include 64-bit capabilities.

However, ARM's Mandyam noted Applied Micro already makes a 64-bit ARM-based chip. Applied Micro on April 9 announced its X-Gene 64-bit ARM-based SoC, which is sampling with HP. A Moonshot system with the X-Gene chip will be available later this year.

"Our ARM 64-bit X-Gene Server on a Chip breakthrough architecture delivers an optimal combination of compute, networking and storage capabilities," Paramesh Gopi, president and CEO of Applied Micro, said in a statement.

Other ARM chip partners offer virtualization support and error-correcting code (ECC) memory, and the growing use of open-source technology in the data center is a plus for ARM, Mandyam said.

"Open source is the great equalizer," she said. "I don't think the gap [between ARM and Intel in server processor technology] is as much as you might think."

There also is room in the data center for 32-bit computing as well, both Mandyam and HP's Potter said. HP currently is running both 32-bit and 64-bit Moonshot systems in its labs, Potter said. "We're not limiting it," he said during the launch event.

In addition, Mandyam noted that Chinese search company Baidu used ARM 32-bit processors in storage systems while deploying a storage area network. Faced with power and space limitations, Baidu was able to cut the total cost of ownership in the network by 25 percent using the ARM technology, which included chips from Marvell.

"It's performance-per-watt that really matters at the end of the day," she said.


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