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HP is turning to an obscure ARM chipmaker to provide its CPUs

A report by Bloomberg is shaking up the CPU market this morning.  The news agency cites two sources close to hardware giant Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ) as indicating that the company was close to releasing servers powered by ARM-architecture CPUs.  The move would be a blow to Advanced Micro Devices, Inc. (AMD), a minority player in the market, but would be most painful to Intel Corp. (INTC) the world's largest maker of server CPUs.

I. HP to Become First Big ARM Server Seller?

SERVERS are the racked computers that power the internet, business networks, and the mobile devices services we all know and love.  HP is in a statistical dead heat [source] with International Business Machines, Inc. (IBM) for the global lead in server revenue, so its moves are carefully scrutinized.

Server CPUs represent a $9B USD market.  When it comes to the architecture used, it typically depends on the kind of server.  Mission critical servers are a quirky lot, home to Intel Corp.'s (INTC) non-x86 Itanium architecture chips, and other seldom seen architectures.  But when it comes to your vanilla standard work servers, almost all use x86 designs from Intel (Xeon CPUs) or AMD (Opteron CPUs).

Intel sign
Intel is the world's biggest server CPU maker. [Source:]

If HP indeed embraces ARM, it would be the first of the server heavyweights to support the rival architecture.  It reportedly is planning to use a startup named Calxeda, Inc.  Calxeda launched in 2008 and is based in Austin, Texas.  It is partially owned by the UK-based ARM Holdings Plc. (LON:ARM), the firm which designs the base ARM architectures and licenses them to third-party chipmakers for customization.

Some ARM architecture chips are becoming familiar names to mobile device fans.  ARM designs like NVIDIA Corp.'s (NVDA) Tegra and Qualcomm, Inc.'s (QCOM) Snapdragon power virtually all smartphones and tablets.

Calxeda isn't exactly a household name, though, as it's focused on developing server CPUs and does not make mobile device chips.  Calxeda hopes to apply the same advantage that ARM has in the mobie space -- power efficiency -- to server space designs.  In fact, the company's profile says its flagship design draws only 5 watts of power.

II. Can ARM Best Intel in Server Power Consumption?

ARM Vice President Michael Inglis last week suggested that ARM could make serious inroads into the server market, commenting, "One of the biggest issues today in the server farms is power management.  As we move forward into 2014 you’ll begin to see [ARM server] systems emerging."

With companies like Google and Facebook resorting to extremes [1][2][3][4] to cut their hundreds of millions of dollars in server power costs, ARM may be a tempting alternative.  Assuming ARM server chips are equivalently functional from an I/O and memory perspective, the success or failure will basically boil down to their power consumption per unit processing -- flops per watt.

Tablets and servers
Power efficient ARM CPUs have a near-complete monopoly on the tablet and smart phone market.  Can they replicate this success in the server market and displace an entrenched Intel? [Sources: SkyTV (left); Tech Genie (right)]

Ultimately it's unknown exactly how well these designs will do, because of two factors.  First, ARM servers chip designs are just starting to hit the market.  Second, Intel is preparing to launch its first Ivy Bridge CPUs, which come with 3D transistors.  Intel promises this innovation on the 22 nm node will dramatically slash power.  The pressing question is whether it will be enough to meet or beat architectural advantages of the low-power ARM CPUs.  Intel told us it would at Intel Developer Forum, but obviously that's a partisan statement.

Servers chips are the fastest growing part of Intel's business, rising 35 percent last year, versus 21 percent for personal computer chips.  Approximately 19 percent of Intel's revenue comes from HP, its biggest single customer.  Now Intel finds itself playing the same game it's playing in the laptop market -- trying to keep ARM locked out.

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"Uses less power" does NOT mean "more efficient"
By Wolfpup on 10/28/2011 12:48:19 PM , Rating: 3
I think a lot of people confuse “uses less power” for “more efficient”. Yes, ARM's designs use less power...because they're much smaller, slower, and less powerful. Is there any indication anything they're doing now would actually be more efficient than AMD or Intel's current products? In fact almost by definition Intel's stuff's going to be more efficient since they're usually a process or two ahead of everyone else.

Certainly a 5 watt chip is not something that's going to be any good at...well, anything, so single threaded performance is going to be terrible...

I'm very, very skeptical about ARM's competitiveness on anything but a marketing level.

By someguy123 on 10/28/2011 5:01:51 PM , Rating: 2
This is what I don't understand either. ARM chips are rightfully dominant in portable devices for their power draw, but they don't have anything to speak of in terms of high performance, high powered parts. doesn't make sense to stack an array of these things only to come out with the processing power of a single xeon.

By FishTankX on 10/29/2011 11:55:04 AM , Rating: 2
However, for low load tasks or cheap servers, ARM would be ideal.

I believe anand on once stated that processors can only realistically cover about 1 order of magnitude worth of power before the architecture becomes inefficient. Thus, a xenon would probably become inefficent at sub 10 watts. An ARM processor can operate at about ~1w. That means that ARM neatly covers that gap.

While virtualization can cover multiple loads succesfully on consolidated hardware, some situations probably only call for a server that can handle loads that an ARM processor would probably do fine with, and you could probably make it about the size of a USB stick with an ethernet dongle and a wall wort as a power supply and sell it for $50.

By ekv on 10/30/2011 2:58:23 AM , Rating: 2
It almost sounds to me like you're describing NVidia's Kal-El architecture, just at the server level though. Use lower power processor till load is sufficient to justify using heavy-duty processor.

In the case you describe, use ARM chips -- and hope your software is quite threaded -- till the load reaches a certain point then move the processes over to a Xenon server. [Kind of heart-wrenching that AMD is sucking wind here, especially w/ their drowsy dozer]. Since I don't run a cloud-server or virtualization farm I can't tell you whether such work loads are typical, though perhaps somebody else here could.

I wouldn't gainsay the feasibility of building a server for, say $100, but I'd say it's highly unlikely due to enterprise-market margins.

By spread on 10/28/2011 11:23:25 PM , Rating: 2
ARM processors have been getting much faster over the years and ARM just recently released plans for a 64 bit architecture.

There is a bright future ahead if this trend continues. Right now for the processing they do I would have to agree that Intel and AMD (not the new bulldozer disappointment) offer very much performance per watt but you never know.

By EricMartello on 10/28/2011 11:34:38 PM , Rating: 2
Right, using less power is not a measure of efficiency. People seem to forget that efficiency is a measure of "work performed" for "power consumed".

An Intel Nehalem Xeon with 6 cores has a TDP of 130W or about 22 W per core, meaning at its peak it draws about that much power...however when you consider the CPU and its supporting hardware (i.e. mainboard), a single core on the Nehalem is going to outperform any of ARM's current CPU offerings in almost all server duty categories...I'd say the Intel CPU is still more efficient, since you'd need several ARM-powered servers to equal one Xeon-powered server.

By Sunner on 11/1/2011 2:20:35 AM , Rating: 2
On the other hand the CPU's of today are just vastly more powerful than is needed for most tasks, which is one of the primary drivers of virtualization.
Still, there are lots of cases where you might not want virtual servers for one reason or the other, and a comparatively weak ARM CPU would do fine in a lot of these.

It's easy to see some parallels between ARM and Intel today and the position Intel was in relative to the RISC powerhouses of the 90's, where Intel usurped them from below.

By deathwombat on 10/28/2011 11:55:12 AM , Rating: 2
I welcome anything that forces Intel and AMD to build better server chips, and anything that reduces those summer brownouts, but having ARM-based servers won't be very useful until the network/database/server software gets ported. No one builds a $10 million server to play Angry Birds.

RE: Software
By dgingerich on 10/28/2011 12:16:47 PM , Rating: 2
Intel was headed in the right direction with Atom based server chips. I like the idea of having a DC/print server in the wiring closets with the switches, distributed among various areas of the building. That way if one goes down, it's easy to just pick up the slack from another area and everything stays just fine. Any changes are replicated down after a fairly short time, and each system uses much lower power. Even a DC and print server would only use a small fraction of the processing power of an Atom.

With ARM, that would be even better. Low power, faster, and cheaper to manufacture than an Atom. We already know Microsoft has Windows 8 code running on ARM tablets. How hard could it be to simply adapt that for light duty servers like a DC, DNS, DHCP, or print services? I'm running 4 Windows servers doing DC, DNS, and DHCP on a quad core single socket server through Hyper-V for 4 different test subnets and domains, and they barely use 15% of the processor. That server only cost me $2500. ARM would be great for those type duties just for the low expense in both manufacturing and power consumption. I bet HP could make ARM servers for less than $600 that would use 1/10 the power of this Dell R310 I have.

RE: Software
By kitonne on 10/28/2011 12:53:32 PM , Rating: 2
You have dual core Atom 330 servers in 1U form factor at Newegg for around $300 available NOW for these kind of applications. I am pretty sure you can also run DNS, DHCP and other lightweight applications on Open-WRT for $25 in hardware costs. Really do not see a business case for a new server architecture.....

RE: Software
By silverblue on 10/29/2011 7:33:28 AM , Rating: 2
We don't hear much about Atom-based servers nowadays, as interesting as the idea might have been. I was wondering about Bobcat servers but John Fruehe (I may have spelled his name incorrectly in the past, my apologies!) doesn't think they'd suit in their current guise.

Would having Atom in such high density actually prove counter-productive? I expect Intel has already done its homework in this area.

Who will make software for it?
By 91TTZ on 10/28/2011 12:02:31 PM , Rating: 2
The server itself may be nice and power efficient, but 95% of the software market for servers is strictly for Windows x86. Even if Microsoft makes Windows work on ARM the software will also have to be written for ARM. Will Microsoft make Exchange, SQL, Sharepoint, and all of their other products for the ARM architecture? Will those versions be as refined and as bug free if they're in such a small market?

Otherwise they're going to have to be content with the small marketshare that Linux has and go that route.

RE: Who will make software for it?
By Iuconnu on 10/28/2011 12:34:35 PM , Rating: 2
I don't know where you get that from mate. More than 60% of web servers are Linux or Unix-like and will run just fine on ARM.

By deathwombat on 10/28/2011 1:14:53 PM , Rating: 2
Linux will run just fine on ARM, but you'll still have to, at the very least, recompile your software for ARM. That's fine for open source software, but not all Linux software is open source. Finally, just getting software to compile is only the beginning. When you spend big money on server hardware, you want software that's optimized for that hardware. None of these problems are insurmountable. Where there's a will, there's a way, but will there be a will? As with Itanium or x86-64 or Cell, the software will arrive eventually, but don't expect kick ass software that fully utlizes your hardware on Day 1.

Some statements are not accurate....
By kitonne on 10/28/2011 12:37:46 PM , Rating: 2
Not all mission critical servers are Intel or AMD. IBM with their Power architecture, and Fujitsu / Oracle with their SPARC CPUs would beg to differ...

I am afraid that the statement that 95% of all server software is Windows based is not quite true either - even on x64 hardware, Linux + Oracle or DB2, and LAMP have higher market share then 5%. In a lot of applications, backend servers are almost 100% Unix of some sort running Cadence, ProEngineer & other CAD, solid modeling, animation rendering farms, ERP, SAP, Oracle Business suite, etc.

While it is true that Microsoft Windows servers are used in a lot of places, they are not 95%.

ARM as it stands now is an iffy proposition for servers, because it does not address enough memory and virtualization tools on ARM are in their infancy.

You need 64 bit addressing and support for virtual machines in the CPU before you can really talk servers. Fault tolerance is the next step up, and right now x64 is not there yet. Itanium, Power and Sparc CPUs are still ahead in that regard.

As far as I can see, the real story in servers is in virtualization, automatic load balancing across a server farm, and fault tolerance at a node level. Some people are already dynamically moving virtual machines and shutting down physical servers when the demand is low, and bring up more nodes as the demand increases, and this may be a better approach for power savings then moving to many, individually slower, ARM CPUs.

RE: Some statements are not accurate....
By Wolfpup on 10/28/2011 12:44:46 PM , Rating: 2
They didn't say they were-exactly the opposite actually.

By JasonMick on 10/28/2011 1:52:35 PM , Rating: 2
They didn't say they were-exactly the opposite actually.
Yep, he misread. His comment was otherwise informative, though, albeit off-topic.

Mission critical servers use all sorts of seldom-seen architectures, but this article is about mass market servers.

I merely mentioned mission critical designs because I thought it was helpful to point out that SOME niche market servers do already use something other than good ol' x86.

Economies of scale
By bupkus on 10/28/2011 3:44:44 PM , Rating: 2
If this does happen would this mean that hp would receive volume pricing on ALL their ARM processors?

[On second though, it's probably best if I don't say anything about the Touchpad.]

RE: Economies of scale
By Aries1470 on 10/29/2011 9:35:34 AM , Rating: 2
[On second though, it's probably best if I don't say anything about the Touchpad.]

Wow, that really made my mood :-) They had a great thing going with WebOS, but... as to quote you:
[On second though, it's probably best if I don't say anything about the Touchpad.]

As for the ARM architecture, a 64bit version will be available next year.
Read article here:

Ok, lets get the ball rolling.

btw, they would /should be ok for small things that up to 32bit CPU's can handle (some Atoms are 64bit!) in the server market, but seriously, 64bit is needed for ARM YESTERDAY .

Can't wait to see what unfolds. I will guesstimate that they will try some "low end" server needs and see how it goes and port software over.

As for MS, since they are going to also go ARM for Win8, I would love to think that they are also going to port their suites too, and would most likely include a "re-compile for Arm A7 or A8" or something like that. Just a module to include in their programming suite, all the programmers will need to do is just export their version for both x86 and Arm.

Those are my thoughts anyway.

ARM vs Xeon Performance
By cnxsoft on 11/6/2011 7:46:43 AM , Rating: 2
For those interested in the performance/efficient ratio of ARM platform vs Intel, here's an article showing a cluster composed of six pandaboard (OMAP 4 Cortex A9) and they compare the power consumption and real estate use of this setup vs. a Xeon server.

RE: ARM vs Xeon Performance
By kitonne on 11/8/2011 10:53:29 AM , Rating: 2
A Xeon can run multiple VMs at the same time, and can be overall the winner in price / performance and power / performance compared to a cluster of ARM boards. Current server farms move VMs dynamically across nodes, depending on workload, and shut down / bring up nodes as needed to save power. While I agree that ARM will find some buyers and is something to watch, I am not selling my Intel stock just yet...

By 2014 ...
By 2ManyOptions on 10/28/2011 12:24:26 PM , Rating: 2
Intel will probably have 2 further generations of Xeons released and it probably is a good assumption that it will have significantly better performance/watt than today's Xeon offerings.
If Intel delivers what it has promised, we will probably see good (if not best) smartphones, tablets etc. with Intel processors.
It might as well be that ARM is trying to defend its mobile territory and throwing a stone in the server space. Like others have mentioned, having won Win8 on ARM for a tablet does not mean the same scale of success in servers - by 2014. It might happen, but 2014, seems to be over-enthusiastic on ARM's behalf .

Low End Servers
By Jacerie on 10/29/2011 1:43:06 PM , Rating: 2
If these ARM processors live up to their hype then I believe we will see a good amount of usage for your typical low end server that doesn't require loads of CPU utilization. File, print, AD, and web servers pretty much rely on disk access and NIC speed. These processors will most definitely have a chance to shine in that segment. Throw a light weight linux distro on there and you'll have a winner.

By BSMonitor on 10/29/2011 3:45:45 PM , Rating: 2
In case big companies would like their employees playing Angry Birds on breaks, HP is releasing ARM based servers..

Look at it like this.. All non-ARM software will have to have some kind of emulator... Running layers of software on a horribly weak platform already?? Yeah .. Ok

By wallijonn on 10/31/2011 10:51:41 AM , Rating: 2
Server CPUs represent a $9B USD market.

As in 'just the chips'?

Otherwise, $9B is close to what HPQ makes on their PCs. The question is, "How much does HPQ make on servers?" And will the lower cost translate merely to larger profits (sell for the same amount) or will the cost savings be transferred to the end customer?

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs

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