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 (INTC) veteran x86 architecture to ARM Holdings plc's (LON:ARM) self-titled architecture, ARM.  The world's top server seller, Hewlett-Packard Comp. (HPQ), already made public its intent to make ARM servers.  Now Dell Inc. (DELL) a top personal computer maker and server maker, has joined the list of server makers testing upcoming ARM offerings.

In an interview with Forbes, 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 headquarters
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. (AMD), NVIDIA Corp. (NVDA), and others, who accused Intel of anti-competitive monopolist bullying in the past [1][2][3][4] [5][6][7][8].  Today, under intense scrutiny, 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 Cortex A15
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.

Dell Power Edge
ARM chips could find their way into Dell PowerEdge servers as early as 2013.
[Image Source: Dell Community]

According to Forbes, 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 and 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.

Source: Forbes

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