Dell Donates ARM-Based Zinc Server Concept to Apache Foundation

Dell is hoping that donating the Zinc server concept to the open-source community will drive ecosystem development around ARM-based systems.

Dell is donating an ARM-based server concept to the open-source community, the latest step by the systems maker to fuel the creation of an ecosystem around the idea of servers powered by ARM's low-power chip designs.

Dell officials announced Oct. 25 that they have donated the server, which runs Calxeda's ARM-based EnergyCore system on a chip (SoC), to the Apache Software Foundation. The server OEM has been testing server designs running on ARM chip designs for more than two years, and in May announced the limited distribution of its Copper servers running on Marvell Technologies' Armada XP processors, which are based on ARM designs.

Calxeda is hosting Dell's Zinc ARM-based server concept at a site in Austin, Texas, and members of the Apache Software Foundation will be able to access it remotely, according to Dell officials.

Dell's Copper systems were delivered to select customers to run in their hyperscale data center environments, while at the same time the systems maker made other Copper servers that are housed in its Dell Solution Center and at the Texas Advanced Computer Center in Austin available to software developers, who can access the system remotely. The idea is to enable software developers to develop and test server software for the ARM architecture to help build up the necessary ecosystem around the concept.

Software partners, including Canonical and Cloudera, also received Copper servers to support their development efforts.

Neither the Copper nor the Zinc systems are ready for general availability, but Dell officials say the time is coming for ARM-based servers, and the software support will be crucial to their success. As with the Copper systems, company officials are hoping that donating the ARM-based Zinc server concept to the Apache Software Foundation also will fuel software development that will build up the ecosystem.

"With this donation, Dell is further working hand-in-hand with the community to enable development and testing of workloads for leading-edge hyperscale environments," Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager for server solutions at Dell, said in a statement. "We recognize the market potential for ARM servers, and with our experience and understanding of the market, are enabling developers with systems and access as the ARM server market matures."

The industry is seeing growing demand for low-power servers, sometimes called microservers. The demand is coming from Web-based companies like Facebook and Google, which run huge numbers of servers in their massive data centers, and are looking for systems that can process millions of small workloads and drive down their energy costs. Enterprises, seeing the benefits of cloud computing, virtualization and server consolidation, also are building up hyperscale data centers that demand high performance and energy efficiency from their systems.

IDC analysts noted in a study this month that the numbers of data centers in the United States are falling, but that those still standing are growing bigger. By 2016, the number of data centers in the country will go from 2.94 million this year to 2.89 million. However, total data center space will jump from 611.4 million square feet in 2012 to more than 700 million square feet by 2016.

ARM officials hope those larger data centers will enable them and their partners to gain traction in a server chip market dominated by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. ARM's current array of chip designs lacks some key server features, including 64-bit capabilities, greater virtualization support and higher memory capacity, but many of those will be included in the company's upcoming ARM v8 architecture, which is expected to begin showing up in systems by 2014.

How successful ARM will be in displacing any Intel or AMD chips is still unknown, particularly as both vendors are driving down the power consumption of their x86-based chips.

However, some top-tier OEMs already are looking at ARM-designed processors for upcoming low-power servers. Along with Dell, Hewlett-Packard has partnered with Calxeda to develop very low-power systems as part of its larger Project Moonshot. That said, HP officials in June opted for Intel's Atom-based Centerton platform for the first Project Moonshot servers.

Dell officials, in announcing the donation of the Zinc server concept, said ARM systems could be used for Web front-end and Hadoop environments, and noted that many Dell server customers for their big data and cloud workloads already use software from the Apache foundation, such as Hadoop, Cassandra and the Apache HTTP Web Server.

Dell and Calxeda will host the Zinc server concept and maintain the hardware, while the Apache foundation will manage the systems, including access, patches and upgrades. The server concept is currently running, and the Apache Hadoop project performed more than 12 builds within the first 24 hours, according to Dell. Other builds are being done by the Apache Derby, River, Tapestry and Thrift projects, and projects like Traffic Server and Jackrabbit also have expressed interest in gaining access to the Zinc concept, company officials said.