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). But a cluster of recent announcements, launches and other maneuvers indicate that energy-efficient ARM chips could be headed from mobile devices to the data center.
In April, GigaOM’s Stacey Higginbotham spotted an interesting job post at Microsoft:
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.
This kind of experimentation indicates 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. As ZDNet’s David Chernicoff wrote this week, “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.”
As I describe in my weekly column at GigaOM Pro today, 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. But that could soon be changing, thanks to efforts from startup Smooth-Stone and Google, which in April acquired Agnilux, a chip design firm steeped in ARM know-how.
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. While ARM poses little risk to Intel and AMD for now and its current role in the server market is negligible, a change is definitely under way.
Photo from Waleed Alzuhair’s photostream