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Dell taps ARM processors for low-power servers

Posted: 20 May 2010  Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:ARM server  processor  multicore 

Dell Inc. is set to test multicore ARM processors from Marvell Technology Group for possible use in low-power servers for large data centers. The company has already shipped a few thousand low-power servers based on x86 processors from Taiwan's Via Technologies Inc.

Separately, an executive from IBM Corp. said Big Blue backs the trend toward new low-power architectures for servers. But he declined to give any specifics about what, if anything, it is doing with ARM chips.

The OEMs are among the latest to declare their interest in ARM-based servers for applications constrained by power budgets that don't need the muscle—or cost—of Intel x86 systems. One of the main target markets are large data centers such as those run by Web 2.0 companies such as Facebook.

"We've been all over this," said Paul Prince, chief technology officer for Dell's enterprise products group. "About a year and a half ago, we put a LAMP [Linux, Apache, MySQL and Python] stack on an ARM A8 core," in one test, said Prince.

About two years ago the company built for at least one large data center customer 5,000 or more custom servers using a notebook x86 chip from Via. "That was an early indicator that there was a market pull for low-power servers, he said.

Dell's next step will be to benchmark a multicore ARM Cortex A9-based SoC aimed at servers from Marvell. Last week, Marvell said it will ship 40nm ARM-based server chips this year.

"There are a handful of pretty credible chip vendors—the Broadcoms and TIs are all working to sell their vision of this," said Prince. "Marvell is at the top of the short list," he added.

Broadcom has made no public statements about ARM servers. The market is still young and will initially be "mainly limited to Web and file servers," said Simon Assouad, a senior product line manager in Broadcom's Ethernet controller group

IBM would not reveal its plans, but Bernie Meyerson, an IBM fellow and VP of innovation, said the company backs the trend to new low power architectures for servers.

Because the ARM server movement is based on Linux, "it is open source and IBM long ago endorsed the open movement," said Meyerson. "We have probably shipped hundreds of thousands of products with ARMs in them already," he added, referring to systems other than servers.

"The creation of yet another ecosystem won't disrupt anyone who has the capability to use it," he said. "If you can do your own designs, it's a differentiator not a liability," he added.

Meyerson predicted the rise of ARM servers would lead to a new generation of more optimized products.

"We're going from an era of general purpose processors to application-specific processors, and now we will go from general-purpose computers to application-specific servers," he said. "People will start to examine these machines and they will tend to be more appliance-like," he added.

The trend to ARM-based servers mirrors what happened with IBM's BlueGene supercomputer design, Meyerson said. IBM created a radically more powerful and less power hungry supercomputer with BlueGene by building a new system architecture around an array of simplified PowerPC 440 cores. For some time the BlueGene systems were ranked as the most powerful in the world.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times





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