Print 25 comment(s) - last by kitonne.. on Nov 8 at 10:53 AM

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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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.

"Intel is investing heavily (think gazillions of dollars and bazillions of engineering man hours) in resources to create an Intel host controllers spec in order to speed time to market of the USB 3.0 technology." -- Intel blogger Nick Knupffer

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