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ARM Reaching Into Server Market

ARM has become the dominant architecture in portable products.  The server market is not as large as smartphones and other portable consumer electronics in terms of unit volumes but   is growing at a fast rate.  While the volumes are relatively low, the processors in the server market carry a high price tag, in the hundreds of dollars.  Intel dominates the server market with Xeon.  This is Intel’s fastest growing product line and it has its highest gross margins.

ARM and its partners have been eyeing the server market for several years.  Expanding into servers results in a new revenue source.  The main thrust for using ARM technology in servers is the lower power consumption the architecture offers versus the x86.  It may require a multi-core and multi-socket solution to compete with Intel on performance.  Yet the ARM camp touts that it can still achieve a lower power profile, occupy less space and do this at a lower cost.

Currently, ARM is a 32-bit architecture while x86 is 64-bit.  A year ago (October 2011) ARM announced a 64-bit V8 ISA.  The chip vendors for ARM server class CPUs are Applied Micro Circuits Corp. (AMCC), Marvell, and Calxeda.  Currently, Marvell and Calxeda are supplying 32-bit ARM CPUs for servers.  AMCC has an architecture license.

A long term concerted effort by ARM and its technology partners will be needed to make inroads on the x86 in the server market.  Prototype CPUs and systems need to be deployed and software development systems need to get into the hands of developers in order to have code available when platforms are ready to hit the market.  The 64-bit ecosystem is slowly developing.

AMCC demonstrated a 64-bit ARM server processor in October 2011 in an FPGA emulation.  Silicon tape out is expected at the end of 2012.  AMCC’s design is called X-Gene Server on a Chip.  Recently AMCC, ARM and Red Hat announced a partnership to develop a 64-bit server platform.  Red Hat is responsible for developing support within the Fedora Linux community.

Hewlett Packard has been working on multi-server rack systems based on Calxeda 32-bit ARM SoC.  The work is being done at the HP Discovery Lab in Houston, TX.  The project Pathfinder includes partners Calxeda, ARM, Red Hat and AMD coming together to develop technologies and hardware platforms.  This is being done for benchmarking, testing and proof of concept.  The Discovery Lab was supposed to launch in mid-2012 but was delayed by a couple of months.

Calxeda announced on October 17, 2012 that it has ramped up efforts for 64-bit ARM processors for servers to be available around 2014.  The company stated it would be in production with a 64-bit ARM CPU in 2014.  In the meantime it is also further developing its 32-bit ARM family with an upcoming ARM Cortex-A15 core.  This will be available in 2013.  Calxeda is also helping developers write applications for 64-bit ARM processors.  On October 8, 2012 it was announced that Calxeda raised $55 million in funding.

Dell is offering its Copper ARM server.  This is powered by Marvell’s Armada XP SoC.  Systems have begun shipping to select customers, but there is no general availability at this time.  In the meantime Dell is making available to developers Dell Copper ARM server clusters via remote access.

Nvidia has an architectural license and is also working on a 64-bit ARM design.  The company is known for its GPU product line.  The Nvidia Tegra 3 SoC is an ARM based SoC combined with a GPU for portable applications.  The company has invested in its GPGPU technology which uses GPUs to perform work that a CPU would do.

As of this writing, October 29, 2012, AMD has announced 64-bit ARM CPUs for servers.  These will be offered along with their x86 product line.  The 64-bit ARM core will be combined with AMD’s SeaMicro Freedom Fabric.  Products will be launched in 2014.  Future products will combine CPU, APU and AMD’s fabric.  AMD will use its fabric technology to develop large clusters of CPUs that will operate together efficiently.  There will be different product for different workloads.  Representatives from Dell, Facebook, ARM and Red Hat were on a panel at this announcement.  An Amazon representative spoke in a video.  This announcement marks a new partnership between AMD and ARM which may develop beyond servers eventually.

One of the challenges for the ARM ecosystem is to have native code for server applications.  The previously noted companies, as well as Ubuntu, are working on this aspect, along with porting x86 code.  ARM has focused on developing partnerships to develop more software support within the ecosystem.  A Russian company, Elbrus Technologies, has developed emulation software which they claim “currently delivers 40% of native ARM performance.”  The company’s goal is 80% by the end of 2014.  More developers are needed to focus on ARM code for servers.

Microsoft has no plans for Windows 8 OS for ARM servers.  Thus, ARM is focused on Linux.  In the datacenters Linux is an open source play.  Facebook’s web infrastructure uses various bits of Linux.  Amazon uses a generic Linux.  According to ARM Linux is in about 90% of the datacenters, but the datacenter accounts for about 10% of the server market.  Enterprise applications which are mission critical tend to be conservative and use Windows.

Datacenters are growing at a high double digit rate, driven by increasing web traffic for social media and online commerce.  Much of the cost for the datacenters is due to power.  This includes not only the power consumption foe the servers but also the cooling system due to the heat dissipation.  The CPU contributes to a portion of this power by itself, but it is a critical component in controlling other elements that contribute to power consumption such as memory, storage, and networking.  Improving the CPU’s efficiency and that of the overall system is of major importance.

The major companies in this segment have their own internal system developments.  Google has been designing and building its own “white box” servers for several years.  Amazon has its own private designs for datacenter gear.  Facebook has a working prototype an energy efficient server called OpenRack.  This is an x86 based design, but in the future it could have an ARM based controller to handle special storage.

Semico Spin

There is a growing ecosystem for a 64-bit ARM server solution.  Several key companies have partnered with ARM.  Large datacenter users can see a compelling case for ARM.  In addition ARM is not trying to go after the entire server market immediately.  The company has stated that by 2015 it can address about 20% of the server market.  This seems like a reasonable goal.

Looking at the developments there are some 32-bit ARM servers shipping this year with more in 2013.  These systems along with 64-bit emulators will provide a basis for software development.  The early 64-bit servers will ship in 2014.  Presumably the 64-bit ARM servers will be a fast ramp up in 2015.

However, one cannot count out Intel.  The server market has become the new cash cow for Intel.  There is increasing competition on the client side from tablet PCs, a market Intel is still trying to crack with the Atom.  Intel does not stand still on its technology development.  The company has stated that it is working on future 64-bit Atom processors for micro-servers.  Intel has its own manufacturing process that it can be fine tuned for trade-offs on power and performance.  ARM chip vendors rely on foundries.  By 2015 Intel will be on a die shrink of its next microarchitecture and using a 10nm process.

The server market is shaping up for intense competition in the next few years.

-Tony Massimini