Are Green Enterprise IT Pastures Within ARM’s Reach?


If you have a smartphone, it’s a safe bet that there’s an ARM-based chip under the hood. Why not Intel? For the same reasons you wouldn’t stuff a V8 engine into a Smart Car; it’s overkill and it would deplete the gas tank in a hurry (or in the smartphone’s case, the batteries). So Intel should stick to PCs, servers and netbooks and ARM should continue designing low-power chips for smartphones and tablets, right? Wrong.

In April, GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham spotted an interesting job post at Microsoft. Since the software giant has so many fingers in so many pies, rarely do its job boards reveal anything noteworthy. This one, however, stood out:

To provide sufficient server and networking capacity, the Autopilot Hardware team is involved in Data Center planning, new hardware expirementation [sic] including SSD and ARM, vendor relationships, delivery and installation, network management, and the development of software to automate provisioning and management of all hardware pieces in the dependency chain.

As Stacey points out, migrating an x86-based server infrastructure to ARM-based hardware makes little sense in the short term, partly because of the relative dearth of ARM-based servers — a situation that startup Smooth-Stone is hoping to remedy. It does, however, indicate that Microsoft is mindful of the surging energy costs it will soon incur by the growth of its Azure cloud computing platform and its efforts to bulk up Bing. It’s a view shared by ZDNet’s David Chernicoff. This week he wrote:

In a cloud -driven IT universe, special purpose servers dedicated, for example, to a search engine, or a database, or to delivering virtualized desktop applications, makes a lot of sense, especially if you can sit all of those special purpose servers on top of fast, efficient micro-kernel that uses every erg of computing power from mesh networks of thousands of energy-efficient, relatively fast, multi-core ARM processors.

Google, too, has been fanning the “ARM server” flames by acquiring Agnilux, a chip design firm steeped in ARM know-how. While both parties remain pretty hush-hush about the deal and the tech that triggered it, it’s widely rumored that energy-efficient server processors are at the center of the proceedings. (The Times, on the other hand, says think tablets.)

But perhaps the best proof that ARM-based servers are headed to the data center comes from straight from the horse’s mouth. When asked about ARM server processors, CEO, Warren East, told EE Times, “I’d expect to see something out there within 12 months.”  The company also revealed this week that one of its own websites runs off an ARM-based web server and is currently involved in “two or three” server trails.

Don’t expect Intel to take the encroachment lying down, though. Its Atom processor, while still coming up short for smartphones, is being taken beyond its netbook roots by startups like SeaMicro that are exploring energy-efficient server designs. But perhaps the chipmaker’s ace in the hole is good old code portability. ARM’s marketing chief, Ian Drew, revealed to ZDNet UK that “‘a lot more’ had to be done on creating a LAMP (Linux Apache MySql Perl/PHP/Python) open-source software stack for the architecture.” LAMP is a web server mainstay, and it goes without saying, a relative breeze to get up and running on x86 hardware.

So for now, ARM poses little risk to Intel and AMD, and its effect on the server market is negligible. But a change is definitely under way.

Judging by the newfound interest in getting ARM’s technology into the data centers of some IT giants, it is obvious that power efficiency is factoring heavily in their IT decisions of late. Also consider that heavy cloud users and providers like Google and Microsoft operate on such a huge scale that they comprise mini-markets of their own and have the resources to devote to exploring alternate server strategies.  That they exert influence on the broader IT landscape is undeniable, and all the more reason for ARM to set its sights on servers.

Question of the week

Does ARM face an uphill battle in the data center, or will it be welcomed with open, well, arms?

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