What Does The Future Hold For ARM-Based Servers?


Executes from ARM and Hewlett-Packard held a virtual round table yesterday with high-level members of the open source Linux community to discuss the future of ARM-based servers in the data center. The hour-long discussion, which was moderated by Lakshmi Mandyam, director of server systems and ecosystems at ARM, covered a variety of topics, including the differences between the coming ARM-based servers and the x86- x64-based systems of today and how the next generation of servers will change the data center cost and service structures and adapt to ever-shifting server workloads.

"The industry has seen a huge transition to hyperscale," said Jon Masters, chief ARM architect at Red Hat. As lower-cost ARM processors increase server density and push them further toward commodity status, Masters believes that service organizations will increasingly allow them simply to fail in place rather than remove and repair. "What we're going to see will be like RAID with servers. We'll flood-fill a data center with a bunch of ARM-powered servers that you never service; when they fail, you just mark them as bad and replace them," he said.

Agreeing with Masters was Tim Wesselman, senior director of ecosystem strategy in HP's HyperScale Business Unit speaking from HP's Discovery Lab in Houston. "HyperScale is huge for creating new opportunities, and not just for architecture independence," he said. "It's the fastest growing part of the server market and it's a substantial portion of that market," he said, putting it at 25 percent.

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Wesselman described a data center that's increasingly used to serve the needs of mobile devices. "As we all adopt the great ARM technology in our smartphones and tablets, that segment is being served by hyperscale, with massive quantities of servers with massive density," he said, giving rise to ever greater need for power efficiency and ease of manageability. These are among the promises of ARM-based servers, to "decrease power consumption, reduce costs and simplify solutions," said Wesselman.

Ubuntu is already running on ARM processors, thanks largely to the efforts of Canonical founder and CEO Mark Shuttleworth, who spoke from the floor of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

"People don't buy servers; they don't buy operating systems; they want to get work done," he said. "Half the challenge is providing familiar operating environments, and the other half is figuring out where the workloads are coming from," Shuttleworth said, speaking broadly of the logistics of bringing ARM servers to market.

The good news, he said, is that data centers and processors are already being redesigned around the cloud. "Our goal is to bring the goodness of cloud computing to the hyperscale arena so that people can get the processes, familiarity and scalability that they like from the cloud but can control costs, energy and data locality of those services to suit themselves better than they can when they're throwing their workloads into a public environment."

But, as Ian Ferguson, vice president of segment marketing at ARM, pointed out, system power involves more than simply measuring that of the central processor. "You have to look at the whole system, and you have to look at how you optimize the subsystems for memory, for storage and other accelerators you provide when you look at architectures." And it's here that some ARM designs might offer benefits. "When you're looking at architectures like Calxeda, what they've integrated into the chip allows you to remove the need for a number of other components inside the system."

Shuttleworth called upon the "extraordinary growth" of the mobile industry in the last five years -- one fueled largely by ARM processor cores and SoCs -- as a sort of green-field opportunity. "And the ARM ecosystem [and] silicon innovations have been fantastic for the data center, where workloads are changing. And, it's appropriate to look with fresh eyes at how best to design and [configure] the data center."

Toward that end, Masters pointed to efforts of Canonical, Red Hat and the Linaro Enterprise Group, the latter of which is a non-profit engineering group that works on optimizing Linux and developing tools and interfaces for ARM.

"On the standardization front, we are the elder statesman, and we want to empower people to innovate." What must come first though, he said, is a set of basic functions. "How will you turn these servers on? How will you load software? How will they boot and install OS software? We have to make sure we have the underpinnings and work on solving the tech problems so we can ship ARM products and everything just works."

PUBLISHED March 1, 2013