System Vendors Unveil ARM-Based Server Offerings

At SC 15, five companies announce servers running on Cavium's ThunderX SoCs, while Applied Micro announces new interconnect for its X-Gene chips.

ARM-based SoC

ARM officials at the company's TechCon 2015 show last week said that even though there hadn't been many high-profile announcements around servers running on the company's low-power architecture, there is a lot of work being done behind the scenes.

However, between that show and the SC 15 supercomputing show this week in Austin, chip manufacturers and server makers are making their cases heard.

Five system makers at the supercomputing show unveiled new servers that are powered by Cavium's 64-bit ARMv8p-A chip, ThunderX. That came a week after Applied Micro President and CEO Paramesh Gopi at the TechCon show unveiled the next generation of its ARM-based 64-bit system-on-a-chip (SoC)—X-Gene 3—which he said will compete for higher-end data center workloads. At SC 15, Applied Micro announced the X-Tend integrated interconnect technology that will appear in the new chip when it starts sampling later next year.

ARM officials for several years have been talking about extending the company's low-power chip designs—found in most smartphones and tablets—into the data center, challenging Intel's dominance in servers. Company executives have said over the past few months that they expect to capture 25 percent of the market by 2020, but as yet, there are few ARM-based systems on the market, with Hewlett Packard Enterprises' (HPE) Moonshot systems among the best known. There hasn't been much in the way of news regarding ARM servers in recent months.

However, that has changed over the course of seven days. On the same day that Applied Micro introduced X-Gene 3, officials with EMC, HPE and Morgan Stanley talked about testing they're doing with ARM-based systems. End-user interest comes not only from a desire for low-power systems in the data center, but also for a second source of silicon for competition and supply chain reasons.

At SC 15, the momentum continued. Penguin Computing, Gigabyte, E4 Computer Engineering, Inventec and Wistron all announced systems based on Cavium's 48-coreThunderX SoC. The system makers—most of them original design manufacturers (ODMs), which sell directly to end users—are offering a mix of one- and two-socket systems that come in 1U (1.75-inch) and 2U (3.5-inch) form factors. Officials with most of the vendors said they were responding to customer demand for ARM-based systems.

"Penguin has invested in our new ThunderX-based Valkre server families based on the competitive advantage it can bring to our customers," Jussi Kukkonen, director of product management at Penguin, said in a statement. "Customers have already begun placing orders for these systems, and we are deploying in the high-performance computing, financial services and other market sectors."

Chen Lee, sales director for Gigabyte USA, said in a statement that the company began working with Cavium in late 2014, and it already has shipped an array of products to customers.

"Our entire portfolio of production systems is now available for order and we are shipping production platforms to customers," Lee said. "We are seeing strong demand for these platforms and we expect the demand to further accelerate in 2016."

Steve Cumings, director of market development at Cavium, said in a statement that "customers have been testing 48-core Cavium ARMv8 ThunderX-based servers for months, and have reported significant benefits in workload performance, reduced power consumption, and overall TCO [total cost of ownership]."

For its part, Applied Micro has its first X-Gene SoC on the market and is currently sampling the second generation. However, with X-Gene 3, the company expects to challenge Intel in the higher end of the server market. When ARM officials first began talking about moving up into the data center, the initial target were smaller micro servers for environments that demand density and power efficiency.