Coming ARM-based Servers Set to Transform Hosting, Cloud Computing

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The physical infrastructure behind web applications is about to undergo a major change at the chip-level, although it might not happen overnight.

The x86 microprocessor architectures have become a common instruction set platform for many modern systems, often provided by large corporations such as Intel and AMD. The dominance of x86, however, is facing major challenges from ARM, an alternative instruction set architecture that can potentially reduce costs, heat and power use, and be optimized for specific applications.

The Jack-of-All-Trades x86 architecture is more general in nature, but those who ARM licensees are able to optimize and extend the core chip architecture in new ways.

According to Christian Reis, Ubuntu’s VP of Hyperscale, the benefits of ARM are ones that might not be normally equated to a server component vendor. “ARM is less an architecture than it is an ecosystem,” he says. “So, when you’re buying an ARM platform…what you’re actually buying is a complete compute environment. What you’ve got is networking and storage and management – everything you need – baked onto the chip itself.”

Reis says ARM has the potential to introduce valuable variant to the x86 servers that populate today’s data center and are all relatively similar. “You can buy chips that have been optimized or targeted at different applications.” He says these variations might include faster memory controllers, more cores, or smaller but faster cores. They could also be used for components within a data center that are specially tuned for analytics or storage applications.

ARM fits into Ubuntu’s future-focused “Hyperscale” strategy which is all about envisioning and helping develop next-generation server platforms. Reis says, “Servers are going to get a lot more interesting in the future, they’re going to go to much smaller form factors; they’re going to be lower powered; there’s going to be more diversity in the hardware.”

In the future, Reis envisions cloud deployments of  ten thousands and one hundred thousands of servers, in which “each one of those servers is going to be a small component that is going to be good at some specific function.” Furthermore, the chips could even have self-managing characteristics or “autonomic management” that would make massively distributed computing possible.

“When you look at ARM and the open-source community as a whole, that’s where you find the innovation,” says Matthew Kimball, manager of strategic marketing at AMD, a chip maker known for its x86 chips.

Earlier this year, AMD announced an 8-core ARM System-on-Chip that, after extensive testing in-house and with independent software vendors and operating system vendors, is expected to be generally available in Q4.

“If you look at where enterprise infrastructure is today, it’s an x86 world dominated by essentially two players: [AMD] and Intel,” Kimball says. “And while we do a great job providing technology to this segment, it’s still a duopoly. All innovation starts with these two players.”

Kimball says ARM is spurring innovation at the chip level in a similar way that open source software like Apache and Linux did to hosting. “When you look at a technology like ARM, which has its roots in the open world, you’re introducing into the enterprise a whole set of new solutions and possibilities and innovations that can take place,” he says.

Today, he says, edge servers and cache servers are over-provisioned today often due to a one-size-fits-all approach to servers that makes them too powerful for workloads. “It’s kind of like taking a hammer to an ant. You’re wasting a lot of energy to run a pretty simple task, which is to route traffic back and forth and move requests around.” Kimball sees specially designed ARM servers as a way to deliver applications at a fraction of the power and take up less space.

Furthermore, having licensing open to more chip providers introduces competition will drive down prices, and paves the way for more innovation in which providers will be trying to top each other. Some of these companies experimenting in ARM include AMD, Applied Micro, Samsung, QualCom, Boston Scientific, and Texas Instruments. “You’ve got at slew of companies rushing into this space trying to get that first step in a get that market leadership,” Kimball says.

He notes, however, that “AMD doesn’t see ARM replace x86 tomorrow.”

The x86 architecture has been the defacto standard for so long that it could be some time for ARM to make it into data centers in a big way. But ARM has the potential to change the physical side of web hosting and cloud computing.

If chip vendors can bring lower energy use and operating cost, and greater functionality they claim, ARM will be welcomed into data centers with open arms.

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  1. Hey David, Nice post. I just wanted to let you know that I linked to your article in the InterWorx roundup of March's Best System Administration, Hosting, Security, and Enterprise IT Content. Thanks again for the helpful article. Ben