Dell Joins Rival HP on Growing List of ARM Server Makers
February 28, 2012 11:07 AM
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Architectural shift could offer precious power savings to enterprise customers
When it come to enterprise servers, information technology folks care less about precisely what architecture of CPUs are going in them, but more about the impact that any architectural shifts might have -- such as computing power, power efficiency, and compatibility.
I. Dell ARMs Itself in the Server Sector
The former two metrics -- computing power and power efficiency -- are pushing the world's top server makers to
ponder a switch
from Intel Corp.'s (
veteran x86 architecture to ARM Holdings plc's (
) self-titled architecture, ARM. The world's top server seller, Hewlett-Packard Comp. (
), already made public its intent to make ARM servers. Now Dell Inc. (
) a top personal computer maker and server maker, has joined the list of server makers testing upcoming ARM offerings.
, Dell's server solutions group general manager, Forrest Norrod, confirms the work, stating, "We've had ARM systems in our lab for over a year. If that’s what our customers demand that’s what we'll offer."
Dell, one of the world's top server makers, is testing ARM-based servers in its labs.
[Image Source: TMG Buzz]
At one time such an open admission could have led to stinging retaliation on chip pricing from Intel. But in many ways the ARM alliance has
benefited from the misfortune of Advanced Micro Devices
, Inc. (
), NVIDIA Corp. (
), and others, who accused Intel of anti-competitive monopolist bullying in the past [
]. Today, under
, Intel is effectively barred from using anti-competitive measures to stifle ARM.
As a result, the tables have turned. While no one will deny that Intel still owns the server business (ARM servers have yet to ship at volume), the fresh presence of a strong third party is giving Dell, HP, and others a powerful bargain chip to force Intel to lower server chip prices. The message is clear -- if Intel's product is too expensive, a cheaper, equally powerful ARM solution could easily be substituted.
II. Growing Potential, Key Roadblocks
For a long time the "equally-powerful" part would have been laughable, back in the days of 300 MHz, single-core ARM CPUs. But ARM has followed a similar route to Intel, broadening its pipeline and adding multiple cores to produce chips with substantial computing might. The ARM Cortex-A15 supports
up to eight cores (2 clusters each with up to four cores) clocked at 2.5 GHz
ARM's new Cortex A15 architecture brings substantial computing power to the table, and multiple cores. [Image Source: ARM Holdings]
The one substantial thing holding ARM back is its instruction size. ARM chips can accomplish similar instructions to x86 chips, often by substituting several shorter instructions for one more verbose instruction in Intel's x86 parlance. However, converting from 64-bit x86 to 32-bit ARM is a far more onerous task, as you're suddenly talking about a capability gap. And with the data center community having recently (mostly) completed the shift to 64-bit computing, this is a major issue for ARM's market hopes.
States Mr. Norrod, "I don't believe customer are going to want to port their applications back to 32 bits from 64 bits."
III. 2013 Looks to be a Major Year for ARM Server-Wise
But ARMv8 will remedy this, bringing 64 bit instructions to the architecture for the first time. The new ARMv8 will be built into a more powerful successor to the ARM Cortex-A15. Dell says it hopes the feature will pop up in 2013.
Until then, Dell is focusing on the fundamentals. A major selling point of its PowerEdge server line, as the name implies, is power. And power can be designed in a fashion agnostic to the particular CPU onboard.
Describes Mr. Norrod, "ARM has some interesting advancements around power density. [But] our management is independent of the processor powering the server. If we wanted to incorporate ARM into our server lineup, to any management tool it just looks like a PowerEdge server.
ARM chips could find their way into Dell PowerEdge servers as early as 2013.
[Image Source: Dell Community]
, Dell, like HP, is looking to design its own ARM server chips. It has hired former AMD engineers to head the project. The engineers are working in Austin, Texas -- just down the road from Calxeda, the joint venture between ARM Holdings and HP.
Much as the top players in the ARM alliance may be a bit nervous about the arrival of
Intel's 22 nm process
3D FinFET transistors
, Intel is surely a bit spooked by the approaching ARMv8 64-bit instruction set and ensuing core designs. Soon, its grip on the server market may be a little less tight than it traditionally has been.
This article is over a month old, voting and posting comments is disabled
2/28/2012 4:09:11 PM
What with Windows 8 allegedly capable of running on ARM chips, I can't help but eagerly anticipate a day when a home based server can service a home network on 20-30 watts without having to resort to Linux. There are interesting times afoot...
RE: Home servers
2/28/2012 4:23:37 PM
Totally. Products like the HP MediaSmart server running Windows 8 on ARM could be pretty cool
RE: Home servers
2/29/2012 2:32:00 PM
Already can do that, I run Windows 2008 on an HP Microserver which draws about 28W according to it's UPS. Much of that is hard drives (2.5") and lost in the PSU, neither of which will be reduced by ARM based processors. People forget the CPU especially at idle is only a fraction of the power draw, "ARM" is not a miracle cure for power draw it is just an instruction set, many current ARM based CPUs are puny compared to even an Atom or Bobcat chip and the power draw of x86-64 is coming down as fast as the grunt of ARM based CPUs is going up. There is no way around physics I not so boldly predict performance per watt won't be that muchdifferent between architectures.
RE: Home servers
3/3/2012 8:57:46 AM
Agree. Even if it were true that ARM could save more power, I am still confident arm will not be able to change the x86 dominance in the server space. The architecture change is not something easy for the server to accept. We can see from the history on what happened painfully on Itanium failing to gain market over the x86 dominance.
"My sex life is pretty good" -- Steve Jobs' random musings during the 2010 D8 conference
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