Dell Exec: ARM Will Find a Place in the Server Market

The growth of hyperscale data centers demanding high-performance, low-power servers will fuel demand for the ARM architecture in systems, Dell’s Brad Anderson said.

BOSTON €” ARM Holdings€™ chip architecture will find traction in the server market with the growth of hyperscale data centers in such environments as cloud computing and Web transactions, according to Dell€™s top enterprise solutions executive. It€™s just going to take some time to get there.

In an interview with eWEEK at the Dell Storage Forum here, Brad Anderson, president of Dell€™s Enterprise Solutions Group, said the demand for a high-performance, very low-power chip platform is growing among businesses running massive, dense data centers, and the idea of a non-x86 architecture is gaining acceptance.

What€™s needed now is for ARM€™s chips to offer more data center-level features and for the software ecosystem around the platform to grow, Anderson said.

The first part is coming with the ARM v8 architecture, which will bring with it such features as 64-bit computing capabilities, greater memory capacity and improved support for virtualization. ARM-designed chips currently can be found in most smartphones and tablets, and ARM is pushing to move them up the stack, into laptops and low-power servers. ARM officials have said they expect to begin making inroads into the server market dominated by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices by 2014.

Dell€™s Copper ARM-based prototype servers, announced May 29, are aimed at helping fuel the development of the server software ecosystem for the ARM architecture, Anderson said. Dell is distributing some Copper servers in a limited fashion to some customers and partners, while making others available in the Dell Solution Centers and at the Texas Advanced Computing Center to enable software developers to remotely access the systems to develop and test software for ARM chips.

Dell€™s Data Center Solutions group had been running ARM-based servers in its labs for several years, Anderson said, and with Copper systems, Dell officials wanted to €œput them out there to spur the ecosystem along.€

The ARM architecture in servers has potential, he said, but all the elements need to be in place for it to be successful.

Dell€™s Copper servers, in the company€™s PowerEdge-C dense systems portfolio, is powered by Marvell Technologies€™ quad-core Armada XP CPU, and can offer up to 48 ARM-based server nodes in a single 3U (5.25-inch) chassis. Each server node draws about 15 watts of power, with total power in a full chassis coming in at less than 750 watts. It€™s running open-source software, including the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack and Hadoop.

Dell isn€™t the only top-tier server maker to take a look at ARM. Hewlett-Packard, like Dell a major partner of Intel and AMD, last year announced a partnership with Calxeda to develop very low-power servers running the chip maker€™s ARM-based EnergyCore chips. Like Dell, HP expects the effort€”part of its larger Project Moonshot initiative€”to push the development of a software ecosystem.

Richard Fichera, an analyst with Forrester Research who has been one of the proponents of investigating ARM chips in servers, said in a June 2 blog post after the Copper announcements that the efforts by Dell and HP were important.

€œAs one of the leading participants in the hyperscale market, Dell is making a pragmatic move to shadow HP€™s efforts, and the cumulative impact of the two largest x86 server vendors cannot but help accelerate the development of the ARM ecosystem, which is currently in a very immature state, and move it more quickly to deliver production-ready platforms and solutions,€ Fichera wrote. €œWith multiple system vendors and multiple silicon suppliers, the stage is set for a period of rapid characterization of ARM performance characteristics and product development.€

There also have been other initiatives underway to prove the ARM architecture on data center systems. At the Ubuntu Developer and Cloud Summit May 7, Calxeda demonstrated a prototype server powered by its EnergyCore chip and running the Ubuntu 12.04 OS, a LAMP stack and other software, including Ruby-on-Rails. At the Computex 2012 show this month, ARM officials showed an ARM-based server made by MiTac International running a Ubuntu Linux operating system.

Dell€™s Anderson said the interest in ARM€™s architecture on servers shouldn€™t come as a surprise.

€œAlmost every market over the years has been cannibalized from below,€ he said. €œMainframes lost out to RISC, RISC lost to x86. €¦. It€™s the only pattern I€™ve seen in the past.€