Cell phone chips just became more appropriate for server workloads, as ARM said it would offer a 64-bit version of its low-energy processor Thursday. The first company to take advantage of the new design looks to be AppliedMicro, which said on Thursday it will expand its embedded systems business by making servers aimed at the cloud and webscale companies.
ARM is knocking on the data center door.
By now, many readers are familiar with the challenges faced by webscale data center operators, who are running tends of thousand s of servers and are concerned about rising energy costs. The ability to eke out the highest performance for each watt of power has become a crucial metric. In some cases, they may not even need the gigahertz monsters that Intel has offered with Nehalem chips, because their processing workloads are smaller.
This shift in computing has led to a plethora of startups such as Tilera, a massively multicore chip company, Calxeda, a startup that will reportedly soon announce a newer version of ARM chips used in servers from HP, and SeaMicro a company building low-power servers using Intel’s Atom chips. Other industry players such as Marvell, Nvidia and Via are also getting into the server market.
In an interview Jim Johnston, senior director of marketing at AppliedMicro, explained that Applied wants to use these 64-bit ARM processors to deliver up to 3 gigahertz per core in systems that can use between two and 128 cores. At the same time, the goal is to deliver that processing power without sucking watts of energy. ARM and a special chip that governs the operations of the multicore chips are its answer to managing power, security and perhaps enabling a host of other uses for the cores.
AppliedMicro wants to join the webscale party.
Johnston explained that the value of AppliedMicro architecture will be that it can offer single-threaded multi-gigahertz performance using the ARM architecture. Companies like Marvel or Calxeda appear to be using multiple cores with less processing power to deliver higher performance. In this way the AppliedMicro version of the ARM chip looks more like a rival to Intel’s lower power Sandy Bridge chips it announced this year.
While the chips using the newly announced ARM architecture won’t be sampled until mid-2012 and then not in full production until 2013, there are already companies eyeing the use of ARM-based servers. Efforts such as AppliedMicro’s, which got into the chip business after buying IBM’s PowerPC business in 2004, may help convince folks that their data centers don’t always have to be an x-86 world. In the process, AppliedMicro might see its own business expand from the embedded world to servers and high-end telecommunications gear.