Smooth-Stone Bets ARM Will Invade the Data Center

Smooth-Stone CEO Barry Evans

Intel, with its x86 architecture, has owned the corporate computing market for decades, but Barry Evans, CEO of Austin, Texas-based systems startup Smooth-Stone, thinks it’s time for a change. Smooth-Stone, which Evans co-founded in 2008, is using ARM-based processors to create a box for the data center. Its goal isn’t a slight reduction in power efficiency, he said, but to “completely remove power as an issue in the data center.”

However, the specifics of Evans’ stealthy company are overshadowed by one key question:┬áIs ARM ready to invade the data center? Evans thinks yes, and I think the IP licensing company behind the architecture does too, because it appears to be cooking up something that involves using its architecture inside servers. Ian Ferguson, director of enterprise and embedded solutions at ARM Plc, declined to talk to me for this story, saying the timing was not yet right to talk about the company and servers “for a few reasons that I can’t discuss.”

Evans was formerly an executive at Intel, where he worked in the chip maker’s ARM business unit; he stayed with the division after Intel sold the line of chips to Marvell. Other members of the Smooth-Stone team hail from HPC systems startup Convey vendor Convex Computer and Newisys, a company that helped build the first server optimized for AMD’s Opeteron chips and was purchased by Sanmina in 2004. Evans was coy about what exactly Smooth-Stone is doing, but did say that the system the company is building is not designed for the high-performance computing market and will use ARM-based chips.

However it’s not enough to swap out x86 chips for those based on ARM and expect the new systems to work. For one thing, it takes a lot of low-power processors to equal the performance of a single multicore Nehalem chip. An even bigger challenge is getting all of the cores to work together efficiently, a problem that another low-power systems company, SeaMicro, likely is solving as well with a box that contains 512 Atom chips. When I asked Evans if Smooth-Stone had built a custom chip to handle the networking and coordination of the ARM-based chips, he said, “Our IP goes all the way down to the silicon level.”

As for when the rest of the world will see this product, Evans declined to give a date, nor would he list customers. But engineers at Cisco, Microsoft and Dell have all mentioned Smooth Stone to me and appear to know something about what it’s attempting to do.

I’ve written about how x86 may be on the verge of losing its hegemony as mobile computing turns to ARM-based architectures and graphics processors from AMD and Nvidia move upmarket into high-performance computing and even into some servers. But the commodity servers that populate the world’s data centers (there are still a few specialty servers using Sun’s Sparc chips or IBM’s PowerPC chips out there, but they are not in the mainstream) seemed fairly safe.

After all, there’s a ton of software written for them and the low cost of such machines makes it hard to imagine someone swapping them out for specialty boxes. Evans doesn’t deny the lure of the commodity server, but because of the need to add so many more servers to meet our rising demand for computing, and the incremental power gains associated with them, he’s betting that the end of x86 domination may be in sight. I’m curious whether alternatives to commodity machines can make it inside the data center, and will be talking about it with some smart people at our Structure conference in June.

“Think of the install base of servers and all of the new servers coming online and how most approaches today save 10 or 20 percent on power,” Evans says. “Now imagine saving 99 percent on power and how completely that changes things and takes power out of the equation.”

If that’s what Smooth-Stone does, it could certainly get CIOs thinking.

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