When talking about ARM-based processors running in servers and other data center systems, the challenge has been as much getting the necessary software and ecosystem support together as it has ensuring the chips can handle the workloads.
Standards organization Linaro has been at the forefront of the effort to grow the software and firmware needed for ARM-based data center systems, and now the group is preparing to release an open-source software reference platform for servers powered by processors based on the 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture.
The Linaro Enterprise Group Reference Software Platform is a good step forward for ARM and its chip-making partners, who hope to challenge Intel's dominance in the data center. Intel holds more than 95 percent of the data center processor market, but ARM officials are expected to grab 20 percent of the market by 2020.
The reference platform will provide chip makers, designers and developers with the open-source software and firmware tools needed to integrate their products and technologies into ARM-based servers, according to Linaro officials. They hope it will accelerate the testing and adoption of the ARM architecture in the data center.
"This will be the first time that all the foundational software components required to run a server on the ARMv8-A architecture have been brought together, tested and released openly," Ricardo Salveti, engineering manager for the software reference platform, said in a statement.
The group had released alpha source code for the platform on Dec. 23 and plans to provide access to the reference platform on developer clouds to partners in the first half of the year. Releases will be aimed at various market segments, and early access to the Linaro Enterprise Group and Linaro Mobile Group builds is available now. The first release of the Linaro Enterprise Group platform will focus on ARM-based servers, and throughout the year, more releases will be targeted at other data center systems, including networking gear and storage appliances.
The initial release will include open-source boot software and firmware using the ARM Trusted Firmware, UEFI (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface) and ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface) standards. There also will be a Linux 4.4 kernel, the latest Debian and CentOS distributions, OpenStack, OpenJDK, Hadoop and Spark.
Industry analysts have said that system OEMs and enterprises are looking for another chip supplier for the data center beyond Intel, hoping more competition will impact innovation and pricing, and give them options should problems arise in the Intel supply chain. A number of players are looking to be that second source of silicon, including ARM and its partners, IBM's OpenPower Foundation, and longtime Intel rival Advanced Micro Devices, both with its own x86 chips as well as its ARM-based offerings.
ARM officials have been talking about making the move into the data center for several years, but it took a while to roll out an architecture with the necessary features, including 64-bit capabilities and greater virtualization support. Now, several vendors, including Applied Micro, AMD and Cavium, have brought this systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) to market, and others—such as Qualcomm—are developing chips.
ARM designs chips and then licenses the architecture to chip makers. Its low-power designs dominate the market for mobile devices—such as smartphones—and now the company wants to go up the ladder and into the data center.
The Linaro reference platform will help with the effort. It's not the only software push for ARM-based servers, which also can run the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP) stack. Software makers like Canonical and Red Hat also are developing products for ARM systems.
On the hardware side, Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) is using Applied Micro's X-Gene SoCs in some of its Moonshot sever modules, while Dell and Lenovo also are prepared to roll out ARM-based systems as demand grows. Other smaller vendors, including Penguin Computing and Gigabyte, are using Cavium's ThunderX chips in systems.
At ARM's TechCon 2015 show in November, Lakshmi Mandyam, the company's director of server systems and ecosystems, said there also is a lot going on that isn't yet being made public.
"I'm comfortable with where we are at this point," Mandyam told journalists and analysts at the event. "There are a lot of proofs-of-concept going on with ARM."