ARM and Nvidia put pressure on x86 in servers
By Stewart Mitchell
Posted on 1 Aug 2012 at 16:46
UK chip designer ARM has provided the processing for the smartphone revolution, creating hardware for handsets from manufacturers from Apple to ZTE, but now it wants a slice of the server market, too.
ARM is taking aim at the x86 slice of the server market, with the company claiming its low-power processors are better suited to the data centre than those from AMD and Intel.
British server manufacturer Boston recently released what it claimed to be the first ARM server to market, while ARM argues that changes in the software used by web giants could allow non-x86 hardware to threaten rival chip makers.
Instead of traditional software packages from Oracle, Microsoft and SAP there is a combination of user owned software and open source
"The most significant thing is the way data centres are going," said Ian Ferguson, director of server systems at ARM. "With the Amazons and the Facebooks and their Chinese equivalents, there's been a shift in how the whole software ecosystem has been built out.
"Although software packages such as Windows Server are currently designed solely for the x86 platform, Linux and apps built for it can happily run on ARM processors. Instead of traditional software packages from Oracle, Microsoft and SAP, there is a combination of user owned software and open source," Ferguson said.
"For a non-x86 architecture, there's an opportunity to compete, with less ties to x86 binaries and things like that," he added. "Clearly, Windows has a very strong position in the enterprise server markets, but in the cloud it's heavily centred around Linux."
Power versus energy
Research firm IDC believes that power benefits could help ARM supplant Intel and AMD processors in niche applications. "There's a long way to go, but, there's a real interest in this sort of thing from data centres and big data companies," said Nathaniel Martinez, program director for European Systems and Infrastructure Solutions. "ARM is turning up the heat on x86 manufacturers."
According to Boston, the energy efficiencies can be significant for big data centres struggling to get enough electricity to run their systems.
"More and more, it's about how much power is being consumed – people can be limited by how much actual power they can get into their buildings," said Neil Kalsi, sales manager at Boston. "We're having discussions with people that are talking of gigawatt feeds, and still being hampered by what they can do."
Citing power consumption of 5W per system in its Viridis servers compared to 70W-80W per chip in some entry-level x86 server hardware, Kalsi said the cost of running ARM servers could be dramatically cheaper.
Those power concerns come alongside a softer demand for processing power - the requirements in data centres are often far more pragmatic than gadgets, analysts told PC Pro.
"If you look at things like data mining, you are looking at patterns in data, as opposed to working out the weather forecast in two days' time which is more intensive because you're doing raw compute stuff," Ferguson said. "We're not talking eight-core 3.5GHz types of chips, we tend to be coming from a more modest computer performance point – there's a better alignment with the cloud type of apps to ARM's performance.
"You still need big CPUs to go and do some massive number crunching apps. People will continue to do that, and probably we'll see them pursue that for a long time with x86. In other areas, we're going to see people integrating other functions around the CPU or GPUs to better customise devices for specific apps, whether that's with ARM or Nvidia."
"One of the main strengths of x86 is also its weakness, because people are going out there and saying 'Why am I using that legacy code – it's 20 years old?'" Kalsi said. "If I start my code from the ground up so that I can use everything on that chip, then I can get comparable or better gains for less money, depending on what I'm doing."
Well that's not right. The people whose organisations rely on 20 years of legacy code are the very last people who are going to buy a new server and re-write everything.
By steviesteveo on 2 Aug 2012
When I started in IT (late 1960s) it was called DP - Data Processing. At that time applications were all mainframe based as PCs, servers etc. didn't exist.
To get the go ahead for a system to be developed the normal business case was based on a three or five year payback or some huge efficiency gain. A lot of assembler and COBOL systems came into being predicated on a ten or so year life.
Thirty years later, as the turn of the century neared, a huge number of those systems were still running (much to the benefit and profit of consultancies and software houses alike!).
Just because the technology advances doesn't mean that the herd will follow.
By jontym123 on 2 Aug 2012
Is this the beginning of the end for AMD and Intel as ARM ramps up for total world domination, as all the various manufacturer's of ARM Chips encroach into the PC Space from every direction at once......??
By Jaberwocky on 2 Aug 2012
This is true to a degree, however Neils words are taken out of context a bit. I think what Neil meant to say is that people have been running on x86 for “20” years and they are comfortable with that. Running that code directly on ARM might mean that they can see gains in terms of performance per watt, however they would see even greater gains if they were to rewrite their code for ARM from the ground up.
By TerryTibs on 14 Aug 2012
This is again true to a degree, however those business who can gain a competitive advantage by moving to ARM (be it power or scaling) could make serious headway on their competition and get serious benefits.
By TerryTibs on 14 Aug 2012
No, but it’s made Intel and likely AMD think about this segment and add similar products to the roadmap.
By Poseidon on 14 Aug 2012
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