ARM Unveils Spec for Servers Running Its 64-Bit SoCs

ARM's Server Base System Architecture comes out a day after AMD introduces its first ARM-based SOC, the A1100 "Seattle" chip.

ARM and a number of chip-making partners, software vendors and server OEMs are rolling out a platform standard for servers running 64-bit chips based on the company's designs, the latest move by the company as it looks to challenge Intel in the data center.

ARM officials on Jan. 29 announced the ARM Server Base System Architecture (SBSA) specification, which gives system makers a framework for building systems powered by systems-on-a-chip (SoCs) built on ARM's upcoming 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture. It also will fuel development of software for the systems, and help enable the ability to port workloads between ARM-based servers, according to ARM officials.

The announcement comes a day after Advanced Micro Devices, at the Open Project Summit in San Jose, Calif., unveiled its first ARM-based 64-bit chip, the 28-nanometer A1100 "Seattle" SoC. AMD, which has been among the most vocal proponents of ARM's push into the enterprise, will begin sampling the four- to eight-core A1100 later this quarter, with expectations that systems running on the chip will begin appear later this year.

AMD was among the chip-making partners that helped ARM—which creates the chip architecture and then licenses the design to others, who put their own IP on top of it—develop the platform standard. Other participants included software companies like Microsoft, Red Hat, Citrix Systems, Canonical and Suse, and system makers Hewlett-Packard and Dell.

It was important for ARM to come out with a platform standard that others can work off of, and also important to have the help of others in developing the platform, according to Jeff Underhill, director of server programs at ARM. Creating an active and expanding ecosystem is a key part of ARM's strategy in challenging Intel's dominance in server chips, and the development of the SBSA was an example of that involvement.

"The ecosystem understood that this was something we had to do, so they were motivated," Underhill told eWEEK. "ARM's business … is all about collaboration. If we’re to achieve [growing] ARMv8 servers in the data center, we know that we need to work together."

The SBSA specification includes the underlying SoC platform, firmware and network boot capabilities, the operating system and the hypervisor kernel, according to ARM officials. It standardizes such low-level CPU and SoC attributes as timers, interrupt controllers and performance counters, and outlines minimum hardware requirements for firmware and OS vendors. It also stipulates that technologies should comply with industry standards for boot devices and that hardware be describable or discoverable, according to Underhill.

In a post on the ARM blog, he said that "silicon vendors are permitted to support capabilities beyond a given level as long as software created for that level is able to run unmodified. OS vendors are able to develop support for multiple levels in a single OS offering, thereby accelerating time-to-market and reducing maintenance by ensuring they can run across all ARMv8-A architecture-based server platforms."