- 32-bit ARM powered platforms, from companies that include Boston, Dell, HP, Mitac and Penguin Computing (based on either Marvell’s or Calxeda’s EnergyCore system-on-chip devices) are starting to ship into the market. Customers can start to evaluate the performance of their workloads on ARM based servers hosted in the cloud.
- The initial pieces of the software ecosystem are starting to appear including performance optimized Java compilers/java virtual machines, commercial grade Linux distributions and application stacks.
For companies developing businesses based on web infrastructure, the server IS the business. These companies have honed their software and hardware strategies to enable quick adoption of technologies that drive down system acquisition costs or running costs. Increased use of open source software on a Linux platform reduces the legacy ties to incumbent server platforms and paves the way for more innovation. Companies are now making decisions on system technologies based on metrics like performance (on the user application) / watt / $ or performance / watt / foot3 as opposed to the pure performance.
ARM has consistently indicated that a relatively small set of server applications could take advantage of a 32-bit ARM processor and that the availability of 64-bit ARM devices would significantly broaden the applicability. In the cloud infrastructure space, the main benefit that the 64-bit execution state brings is access to a larger memory address space. 2014 will be the year when we see 64-bit ARM powered server SoCs appearing in the market. Now surely those will all be based on the ARM CortexTM-A57, right? Well, what we have learnt in the server journey is that one size does not fit all. Some server workloads do benefit from a high single thread performance. However, as Brian Jeff notes in his blog, for applications that have modest compute requirements, the Cortex-A53 processor will deliver the best throughput performance inside a specific power envelope.
We think our cores are a great base for server devices. But as important is the ARM business model which enables our silicon licensees to tightly couple peripherals, memory and processing engines of the same piece of silicon. The selection of this mix of functionality that balances the compute, networking and storage elements for the specific server application is key to driving advantages in the metrics discussed above.
But a chip is useless without software. Earlier this year, ARM released a 64-bit Linux distribution and tools into the open source community. The primary focus of my team is to ensure the multiple commercial grade Linux distributions pick up this technology, augmented with virtualization and application stacks, all in time to intersect silicon availability. Fortunately, we have an early pioneer in in the ARMv8 space. At ARM TechconTM 2011, Applied Micro announced their intent to develop a 64-bit ARM powered server device. ARM demands compatibility between companies that develop their own ARM processors (achieved through an architecture license) and cores that ARM licenses. Software companies are already developing software for use on ARMv8 processors using an FPGA version of the Applied Micro’s X-Gene device. This will be superseded with real silicon, set to appear in the early part of 2013. You can expect to see more announcements about the progress regarding 64-bit server software in the coming quarters.
Some observers remain skeptical as to ARM’s likelihood of success here. My team is immersed daily in this engagement so it is fair to say we are somewhat passionate and evangelical about our chances. What I think we can agree on is that the announcement of the Cortex-A50 series removes a technical barrier that many have argued prevent ARM’s access into the server domain. The list of lead partners of these cores, such as AMD and Calxeda, augmented with the three publically announced ARMv8 architecture licensees (Applied Micro, Cavium and NVIDIA) is an early indicator that choice is coming to the server domain. One size does not fit all. The winners will be those that best deliver relevant, compelling functionality alongside the processor core. A space long devoid of innovation is about to undergo some significant disruption!
Ian Ferguson, VP Segment Marketing, ARM, has spent years fighting from the corner of the underdog. Most of those scars are healing nicely. Ian is particularly passionate about taking ARM technology into new types of applications that do not exist or are at the very formative stages. After driving ARM’s server program for five years, Ian now leads ARM’s vertical marketing organizations, that supports ARM’s partners to grow their business across a wide range of applications with a view to reinvent the way the server function is implemented in networks as opposed to simply replacing incumbent platforms.
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