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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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"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 anandtech.com 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.


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