HP, Calxeda Create ARM-Based Servers for Project Moonshot

HP will leverage Calxeda's ARM-based chips to create extreme low-power servers as part of the system maker's Project Moonshot, aimed at hyperscale and cloud computing environments.

Hewlett-Packard will adopt ARM-based server chips from Calxeda as part of a larger program called Project Moonshot, aimed at developing extremely low-power servers to run in massive environments such as cloud and on-demand computing.

HP's Nov. 1 announcement came at the same time that Calxeda unveiled the first of its ARM-based processors, the EnergyCore server-on-a-chip (SoC), which company officials said will consume only 5 watts and will enable server OEMs to create systems that will offer the same performance using 90 percent less power and space and cost half of what traditional servers cost.

The CPU of the SoC will consumer only 1.5 watts of power, according to Karl Freund, vice president of marketing for Calxeda.

"It's pretty astounding power efficiency," Freund said in an interview with eWEEK.

The news of the partnership between HP and Calxeda leaked to the media late last month, making HP the first top-tier OEM to embrace ARM-based processors for the data center. The server market currently is dominated by x86-based chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices.

However, with the rise of highly dense data centers for cloud computing environments and Web companies, businesses are looking for ways to drive down the costs of powering and cooling their systems. Executives with ARM-which licenses its chip designs to manufacturers like Calxeda, Texas Instruments, Samsung, Qualcomm and Nvidia-have said over the past year that they are looking to drive the low-power chip technology that has become so dominant in mobile devices like smarpthones and tablets up into PCs and servers.

HP is embracing that effort as part of its Project Moonshot, which officials say will help users not only drive down power use, but also costs and complexity within the data center. The effort will dovetail with the company's Converged Infrastructure technology to enable greater sharing of resources-from storage and networking to management, power and cooling-across thousands of low-power servers in hyperscale computing environments.

"Companies with hyperscale environments are facing a crisis in capacity that requires a fundamental change at the architectural level," Paul Santeler, vice president and general manager of the Hyperscale Business Unit in HP's Industry Standard Servers and Software group, said in a statement. "HP has a strong track record of leading market transitions that enable our clients to stay ahead of the technology curve, maximize their ability to innovate and speed their time to market of new services while reducing costs and energy use."

HP's Project Moonshot encompasses several areas, according to HP officials. The company's Redstone Server Development Platform will be the first of several server development platforms featuring extreme low-energy processors, with the first of those processing platforms being Calxeda's EnergyCore. Later Redstone server models will incorporate Intel's low-power x86-based Atom platform, as well as others, according to HP.

Redstone is designed for testing and proof-of-concept, incorporating more than 2,800 servers in a single rack and reducing the need for cabling, switching and peripheral devices. It also will reduce complexity by 97 percent, according to HP. The initial Redstone platform is expected to be available in limited volumes to select customers in the first half of 2012.

In addition, HP Discovery Lab will enable customers to experiement and test applications on the Redstone Server Development Platform, other low-energy platforms and traditional servers. The first lab will open in Houston in January, with other sites planned for Europe and Asia. They will offer both remote and on-site access. HP's Pathfinder Program is part of the company's larger AllianceONE partner program. ARM, Calxeda, AMD, Canonical and Red Hat are initial participants, with more to come, HP said.

Calxeda's EneryCore technology is based on ARM's 32-bit Cortex-A9 design, and the SoC offers more than just the quad-core CPU on the chip. The SoC also includes a fabric that allows up to 4,097 SoC's to be interconnected, and an on-board management controller. There also is a 4 MB shared L2 cache and an integrated memory controller. Such capabilities mirror what other extreme low-power chip makers-such as SeaMicro and Tilera-are doing, in enabling thousands of low-power cores to be interconnected to handle large computing tasks.

Roger Kay, principal analyst with Endpoint Technologies Associates, said Calxeda has "created some highly optimized architecture for a specific type of computing."

"But probably the most important single element is its on-die switching fabric," Kay said in a blog on Forbes.com. "Sharing the same silicon with four ARM processors, a management engine, memory controllers, and various odds and sods is an amazingly complex set of communications pathways. The value of this fabric increases with the number of compute nodes. The more nodes, the more traffic, and the greater the need for a means to handle all this traffic efficiently. Calxeda's fabric scales magnificently."

Calxeda's Freund said he expects the ramp up in adoption to take off in 2012.

"Next year, there'll be a lot of tire-kicking," he said. "Then there will be some [businesses] who will go right in."

The embrace of ARM chips HP, which is the top x86 server vendor in the world, could be a jolt to Intel and AMD, which have been working hard to drive down the power consumption of their server processors. Forrester analyst Richard Fichera said neither Intel nor AMD were taken by surprise by the announcement, and it's not a fatal blow to the chip giants.

"But being concerned in the abstract and having your number-one customer endorse [not only your] competition but an entirely new architecture are two different things entirely," Fichera wrote in a blog post. "Will this destroy Intel and AMD as server vendors? The thought is absolute nonsense. Aside from the large number of workloads that will not particularly benefit from the ARM model, both will respond with further focused R&D to continue to improve their power efficiency, leveraging their strengths in software compatibility and in Intel's case, their market dominance."

ARM chips do have limitations, at least initially. They currently only support 32-bit computing, with 64-bit support expected in 2012. However, 64-bit only addresses about half of the Linux scalable market, which will give Calxeda some running room, Freund said. With its Cortex-A15 design, ARM officials have said they also are bringing other data center-level features, including greater virtualization support and memory capacity.