Dell Unveils ARM-Based Copper Servers for Select Customers, Partners

Dell will use the systems to help build an ecosystem around low-power ARM-based servers for hyperscale data centers looking for greater density and energy efficiency.

Dell officials, who have been testing servers powered by ARM-designed processors for about two years, are now making those systems available to some customers, partners and software developers.

Dell executives said May 29 that limited distribution of its ARM-based Copper servers will help build an ecosystem around the architecture that is seeing increased interest from businesses and institutions running hyperscale data center environments, where there is strong demand for high performance, high density and high energy efficiency.

The systems, powered by Marvell€™s Armada XP CPU, will be delivered to select customers and partners to run in their hyperscale environments. At the same time, Dell will make other Copper servers available in its Dell Solution Centers and at the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) to software developers, who will be able to access the systems remotely to develop and test software for the ARM architecture.

Ecosystem partners, such as Canonical and Cloudera, also will receive Copper servers to support their development efforts, according to Dell officials. They also said the systems vendor in the future will roll out an ARM-supported version of Crowbar, its open-source infrastructure management software.

The systems aren€™t ready for market, company officials said. Instead, they€™re being used for evaluation purposes.

€œThe ARM server ecosystem is still immature, with a limited software ecosystem and (until now) no ARM-based servers from a tier-one OEM,€ Steve Cummings, executive director of Dell€™s Data Center Solutions unit, said in a May 29 post on Dell€™s Direct2Dell blog. €œPlus, ARM is currently 32-bit technology, which means current 64-bit code would have to be modified to run on 32-bit, and likely be modified again when 64-bit comes out in the next year or two. So customers have told us they don€™t plan to put ARM servers into a production environment, but instead want servers to test and validate in their labs.

Still, Dell officials expect increased demand for systems based on the low-power chip architecture.

€œWe recognize the market potential for ARM servers, and with our experience and understanding of the market, are enabling developers with the right systems and access for the current state of the ARM server market maturity,€ Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of server solutions for Dell, said in a statement.

With Copper, Dell can offer up to 48 ARM-based server nodes in a single 3U (5.25-inch) chassis, with each server node drawing about 15 watts of max power, with the total power draw of a full chassis coming in at less than 750 watts. The nodes also automatically discover themselves and interconnect when deployed, and offer a shared infrastructure design.

ARM and Intel, the world€™s top chip maker whose x86-based processors dominate the server and PC markets, have both been eyeing each other€™s territory for growth reasons. Intel is hoping to move into the booming tablet and smartphone spaces, where the vast majority of devices now run on ARM-designed chips built by such manufacturers as Qualcomm, Samsung and Texas Instruments.

At the same time, ARM executives have said they expect to begin eating away at Intel€™s huge market share in both servers and PCs. Intel executives have argued that ARM chips lack key features needed in the server market, including 64-bit capabilities and support for the bulk of the enterprise software running in data centers. However, ARM executives in October 2011 unveiled ARM v8, a 64-bit architecture that will start appearing in systems in 2014, and have said much of the software running in the hyperscale environments is based on Linux.

System makers are seeing growing demand from Web-based companies like Facebook and Google, which buy huge numbers of servers for their massive data centers that process large numbers of small transactions. Such companies place a premium on energy efficiency.

€œWe believe ARM-processor-based infrastructures demonstrate promise for Web front-end and Hadoop environments, where advantages in performance per dollar and performance per watt are critical,€ Dell€™s Cummings wrote.

Hewlett-Packard last year announced a deal with Calxeda to build ARM-based servers for its larger Project Moonshot initiative, which is aimed at create ultra-low-power systems for hyperscale data center environments. In addition, Calxeda officials earlier this month at the Ubuntu Developer and Cloud Summit showed off a prototype server powered by its EnergyCore compute blades and running the Ubuntu 12.04 operating system. Company executives at the time said that additional demonstrations were planned, with end-user shipments starting this summer, and volume shipments from HP and other vendors coming in the fall.

Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Research, said in a May 30 research note that Dell€™s strategy for seeding the market with the ARM-based Copper system makes sense, particularly given its leadership in the hyperscale solutions market and the growing demand from this space for innovative energy-efficient offerings. However, King warned against seeing ARM as a viable threat to Intel in the data center server market as a whole, comparing it to the early belief among Linux proponents that the open-source software would knock Microsoft off its mantle. It didn€™t happen in that case, and won€™t now, he said.

€œThis isn€™t meant to knock ARM,€ King wrote. €œIt€™s a great technology with numerous market wins and scads of development successes. Far more, in fact, than Linux had at the time loyalists were prepping it for a prime-time prize fight. But while ARM-based servers are certainly intriguing, particularly for certain kinds of workloads and infrastructures, it€™s a mistake to rank them out of their class or put them into the ring with an opponent likely to twist ARM right out of its socket."