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HP will announce ARM-based servers next month, reports claim

Oct 27, 2011 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

HP plans to use ARM-based processors in some of its data center servers, according to a pair of Oct. 26 reports. The CPUs in question will apparently be quad-core Cortex-A9 SoCs (systems on chip), expected to be introduced by Calxeda on Nov. 1.

Quoting unnamed people close to the situation, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal reported that HP will become the first major OEM to adopt ARM-based processors for some of its servers, a move that would heighten the growing competition between ARM and Intel, the world's top chip maker.

Intel, which holds more than 80 percent of the overall global chip market and 90 percent of the $9 billion worldwide server chip space, has been aggressive in trying to break into the mobile device space, where ARM chips rule the roost. 

At the same time, ARM executives have been vocal about their plans to move up the ladder and into PCs and low-power servers. Three ARM licensees — Calxeda, Marvell Technologies, and Nvidia — have announced they are developing chips for the data center.

Calxeda has a product-based event scheduled for Nov. 1, though it has not yet said what the event will be about. A company spokesperson declined to comment on the HP reports.

Back in March, Calxeda said its ARM-based server chips, based on a quad-core Cortex-A9 design, would be reaching OEMs later this year. The company added at the time that its SoCs would enable vendors to create servers that will offer 120 quad-core ARM nodes, with an average power consumption of about five Watts apiece, in a single rack.

ARM CEO Warren East (pictured) said late last year he expected to begin chipping away at Intel's server dominance in 2014, a sentiment echoed in recent interviews by ARM Vice President Michael Inglis. ARM executives argue that enterprises — particularly those with large and dense data centers — will gravitate toward more energy-efficient solutions. Last year, the company unveiled the Cortex-A15 design, which offers features that are important in servers, including greater memory capacity and virtualization support.

Meanwhile, Intel continues to see strong growth in its Data Center Group, reporting Oct. 18 that third-quarter revenue for the unit hit $2.5 billion, a jump of 15 percent over the same period in 2010. HP is its largest customer.

A move to offer ARM-based servers could be a boon to HP, according to Brian Marshall, an analyst with International Strategy and Investment Group. In a note Oct. 26, Marshall estimated that HP could save about $200 per ARM-based server. Assuming that HP uses ARM-based chips in 30 percent of its industry-standard servers, the move could boost the company's operating margin and add about $220 million in operating income in 2012, he said.

It also could give HP leverage over competitors when trying to sell servers into data centers where power consumption is a key factor, Marshall said.

Separately from Calxeda's efforts, ZT Systems announced a Ubuntu Linux-based 1U rackmount server at the end of 2010. Featuring SSD (solid state disk) storage and eight ARM Cortex-A9 COMs (computer on modules), the R1801e (below) provides 16 600MHz cores while using less than 80 Watts, according to the company.

ZT Systems' R1801e
(Click to enlarge)

Incursions by ARM into the server space would clearly be a blow to Microsoft, which currently offers no server operating system for ARM CPUs. ARM servers could offer a promising new market for Canonical and its Ubuntu Server OS. (Back in 2008, Canonical and the Ubuntu community made the wise move of porting Ubuntu to ARM.)

Is ARM's window of opportunity closing?

HP isn't the only top-tier server OEM to consider ARM-based chips. Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of Dell's Data Center Solutions unit, told eWEEK in an interview this summer that his company is keeping an eye on developments, and usually has test systems powered by non-x86 chips running in its labs. Dell is aware of the demands from businesses for more energy-efficient technologies and wants to ensure it has the products to meet those demands, Norrod said.

However, the window of opportunity may be closing a bit for ARM-based chip manufacturers to gain significant traction in the data center, he said. A year ago, Norrod believed ARM's presence in the data center was almost a certainty. However, the move is taking longer than he expected, particularly in the area of software support.

"The ecosystem is not quite there yet," Norrod said. "But it's not insurmountable."

At the same time, Intel and AMD both are aggressively driving up the energy efficiency of their server chips.

"How long will it be before Intel and AMD close the power and density gap so that [ARM-based chips are] no longer intriguing enough" for businesses to make the change, Norrod said. "I've seen a lot of aggressive roadmap acceleration [from Intel and AMD] and a lot of attention to power and density."

The ARM-vs.-x86 competition also has the attention of Norrod's boss. During Dell's investors conference in June, CEO Michael Dell said ARM's efforts were a welcomed development in the market.

"I think that right now ARM chips can perform some basic tasks and they are going to get more and more powerful, and I think the x86 guys are going to fight back and fight back hard," Dell said.

Jeffrey Burt is a writer for eWEEK. Jonathan Angel added reporting to this story.

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