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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: Network.in]

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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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 (blog) on 10/28/2011 1:52:35 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
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.


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