Dell Server Executive Says ARM Server Market Uncertain

The market is dealing with product delays and more energy-efficient x86 chips from Intel and AMD, Dell server General Manager Forrest Norrod says.

data center

Dell over the past couple of years has been among the highest-profile server makers looking to help bring 64-bit ARM-based chips into the data center.

The vendor has a number of projects underway—including those dubbed "Copper" and "Zinc"—demonstrating systems powered by ARM processors, and in February announced a proof-of-concept effort that enables organizations and programmers to access systems via the Internet that run on Applied Micro's 64-bit ARM-based X-Gene system-on-a-chip (SoC) and are housed at a Dell Solutions Center in Texas.

Dell, whose server portfolio is stocked with servers powered by x86 chips from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, is ready to enter into the breach with ARM-based systems when businesses begin asking for them, according to Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of Dell Server Solutions. The question is, when will businesses begin asking for them?

"The book's not written yet," Norrod told eWEEK. "It's not clear. If end-user demand is there, we can certainly fill it."

Low-power ARM-based SoCs power most of the smartphones and tablets on the market, and ARM officials for several years have been arguing that the growing demand for greater energy efficiency in the data center has created an opportunity to move the company's architecture into the data center to compete with Intel, particularly in such areas as Web hosting and hyperscale environments. ARM designs the chips, then licenses the designs to chip manufacturers like Qualcomm, Samsung, Texas Instruments and Nvidia.

In recent months, chip makers like AMD, Applied Micro and Cavium have unveiled ARM-based SoCs aimed at servers and based on ARM's ARMv8-A architecture. However, systems running such chips aren't expected until later this year, with momentum running into 2015. Most recently, AMD on July 30 released a developer kit featuring its Opteron A1100 "Seattle" chip. The same day, Red Hat announced its Partner Early Access Program in hopes of driving hardware and software makers to develop a single platform for ARM-based servers.

Dell isn't the only major OEM to embrace ARM SoCs for servers. Hewlett-Packard is planning to use ARM SoCs from the likes of AMD, Applied Micro and Marvell Technology in its Moonshot highly power-efficient systems, though the first versions of the server modules are powered by Intel's Atom platform.

However, demand for ARM-based systems was stronger a year or two ago than it is now, and it's still uncertain how strong demand will be, Norrod said. ARM's efforts have been hindered by several developments, he said, including delays by some chip makers in getting their products to market and the loss of several ARM-based chip makers. Calxeda, one of the early pioneers in the space, shut its doors in December 2013 after running out of money, and Samsung and Nvidia reportedly are backing off their ARM server chip plans.

In addition, there still has to be more consolidation in the market, Norrod said. At one time, there were more than a dozen ARM-based servers chip makers, and now that number is down below 10.

"There was a lot more interest a couple of years ago," he said. "People were waiting a long time. Now they'll take a look at it. "

At the same time, both Intel and AMD have been aggressive in driving down the power consumption in their x86 chip, closing any gap between that architecture and ARM's, according to Norrod.

Software will be a key to whether ARM servers become successful, he said. ARM officials have said open-source software will be important in equalizing the competition with Intel, which has touted the strength of the x86 software tools that are used by most programmers in the data center. Adopting ARM-based servers will mean adopting new software and recompiling existing software. ARM has been working with organizations like the Linaro Group and Red Hat in expanding the ecosystem of server software for the architecture.

"It's always going to come down to software," Norrod said.

While the idea of ARM-based servers has been talked about for several years, it will take another two before the industry gets a clear view of where things stand.

"There's still a brutal, brutal competition among those guys for what will be a small market at the onset," he said, adding that the market for ARM server chips will be more settled by 2016. "The battle will be to demonstrate the value of ARM. Is it large enough against x86 [to convince organizations] to support that second instruction set in the data center? We'll have a pretty good idea how it settles out by the middle of 2016."