Just months after closing the $2.1 billion deal for IBM’s x86 server business, Lenovo is developing a prototype server powered by ARM-based processors, becoming the third top-tier server maker to explore systems that use the low-power architecture.
Lenovo, now the world’s third-largest server vendor, is working with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), a research organization in the United Kingdom to develop and test highly energy-efficient servers optimized for scale-out workloads in such environments as high-performance computing (HPC), cloud computing and Web hosting.
The company joins a growing number of other vendors—from large OEMs like Hewlett-Packard and Dell to smaller companies like supercomputer maker Cray—in looking at ARM-based systems-on-a-chip (SoC) as alternatives to Intel’s x86 architecture in the data center. ARM designs low-power chips and then licenses those designs to manufacturers like Qualcomm and Samsung. They dominate the mobile device market where the chips are found in the bulk of smarpthones and tablets.
Now ARM—which has developed a 64-bit architecture—and manufacturers are looking to move the energy-efficient SoC design into the data center for servers that can be used in scale-out environments such as HPC, grid computing and analytics. The move is attracting such chip makers as Qualcomm, Advanced Micro Devices, Applied Micro, Broadcom and Cavium.
Lenovo inherited the partnership with STFC’s Hartree Centre when it bought IBM’s x86 server business. According to Scott Tease, executive director of HPC for Lenovo’s Enterprise Business Group, the center is interested in finding ways to reduce power consumption and improve performance in a scale-out environment while staying within a particular power budget. The STFC and Lenovo are looking at the ARM architecture for such workloads as Web hosting and Web caching, “some very narrow use cases,” Tease told eWEEK.
The demand for more efficient data center resources is growing as mobile computing, big data and the cloud increase the amount of data being generated, moved and stored. At the same time, companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon are rapidly growing their massive data centers and are looking for technologies that will help them drive down operating and capital costs. Through their work with the ARM architecture, Lenovo officials are looking to improve such metrics as performance-per-watt and performance-per-dollar in their systems.
In its prototypes, Lenovo is using Cavium’s ARM-based ThunderX SoCs into NeXtScale systems, which the company acquired in the IBM deal. Each chip holds up to 48 cores, and each server holds up to two SoCs, Tease said. A 6U (10.5-inch) NeXtScale chassis can house up to 1,152 cores.
The SoC design is attractive in that it enables chip makers to put more compute features—such as memory, I/O and hardware accelerators—onto the silicon. This helps reduce costs and improve performance, Tease said. For example, the ThunderX can offer four 40 Gigabit Ethernet connectors or 16 10GbE connectors, which is important for network-intensive workloads in HPC and cloud environments, he said. In addition, the on-chip connectors could enable connections between nodes without the need for a top-of-rack switch.
Lenovo Joins HP, Dell in Developing ARM Servers
However, SoCs don’t offer the same kind of flexibility that traditional Intel chips offer, something end-users need to think about when considering going with ARM-based systems, Tease said. With the Cavium-based NeXtScale systems, “we’ve traded off flexibility for better performance-per-watt and performance-per-dollar,” he said.
Tease said Lenovo engineers expect to have the prototypes ready within the next four to five months for use by the Hartree Centre.
Lenovo’s prototypes are a continuation of system makers’ “tire-kicking of ARM-based servers,” Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst with Moor Insights and Strategy, told eWEEK. HP already is using Applied Micro’s X-Gene SoCs in its low-power Moonshot server modules, and Dell has a few ARM server projects underway. Cray officials have also said they are considering testing ARM-based processors for some of its supercomputers.
Moorhead said OEMs and businesses are looking for an alternative to Intel, which holds more than 95 percent of the server chip space. He added that Intel is doing a good job of increasing the energy efficiency of its low-power Atom chips, is embracing accelerators and is rolling out a Xeon SoC, but organizations are still interested in other options. The testing being done by the likes of Lenovo and Dell, and HP’s use of ARM chips in commercial systems, reflect that interest.
Lenovo’s Tease agreed.