Look Out! Your Data Center Is About to Change Again


Over the last 10 years, the consumer electronics and information industries witnessed an explosion of innovation. The evidence is on our screens and phones every day, and touches our lives at work, at play, and on the go. One of the key drivers is an innovation spiral fed by the dynamics in the open source software movement. Thousands of programmers leverage the work of others to efficiently deliver unique value, but all within a common software architecture framework. A magnifying effect akin to compounded interest kicks in, and we see this innovation spiral take root and grow like a tornado.

We’re experiencing a similar force in the hardware universe. Multiple hardware companies develop vertical solutions optimized for narrow problem sets, but around a shared baseline: the ARM architecture and ecosystem. And now, the pace of innovation we have enjoyed in mobile phones and tablets is about to invade the conservative world of the data center and its more than 30 million servers. A $50-billion market, and the landscape of an entire industry, is at stake.

Over 6 billion ARM processor cores shipped in 2009. There are two primary reasons ARM is such a popular platform. First, ARM approaches a processor design with power consumption as the primary design consideration, even ahead of performance. After all, how critical is the speed of the processor if the phone can’t last all day?

Second, and perhaps even more important, the ability to license ARM technology allows an entire ecosystem to build on the same basic design. Unlike x86 processors, such as those offered by Intel and AMD, ARM processors are licensed to scores of semiconductor design firms. Calxeda is new to the list and focused on developing ARM-based semiconductor platforms for the server market, which is ripe for innovation.

The server market has experienced four phases of massive change over the last 25 years. Each time, the incumbent technology was replaced by “lesser” technology that offered to get the job done reasonably well but for a fraction of the price. Mainframes were replaced by minicomputers, which were replaced by UNIX servers, which are now being pushed out by x86 servers. It won’t stop there. The cost of energy and space requirements for data centers now approaches or exceeds the cost of the server and networking hardware itself. When you have 20,000, 50,000, or even hundreds of thousands of servers, a power guzzling data center quickly becomes a barrier to business innovation and a significant cost hurdle for the business to clear. Green now means more than good stewardship and social responsibility. Green means big dollars and Euros.

ARM-based servers will consume a fraction of the power and space demanded by today’s most efficient servers. Performance per “core” will be lower, but clusters of these efficient nodes will consume perhaps as little as 1/10th as much power to deliver comparable performance. Couple that with huge gains in performance density to realize massive savings potential in data center capital expenditures. Conventional wisdom in data center planning will undergo a rethink.

Challenges will exist in the widespread adoption of ARM-based servers, but the compelling economics and technology evolution will prevail. First, expect early adoption by the so-called hyper-scale internet data centers, where the software stack is relatively new, built on Linux, written in portable programming models, and has few dependencies on third-party software. Second, ARM is still a 32-bit processor, limited in general to 4 GB of memory per processor. That means it can’t run some of the newer software designed for 64-bit processors. For many applications, which break up large problems into smaller bite-size chunks, this will not represent a major hurdle. In fact, some applications find 32-bit more efficient than 64-bit, producing even more savings.

Looking out to the next five to 10 years, the expected enhancement of ARM to 64-bits, continual improvements in performance, and the ever-expanding software ecosystem will open up the rest of the server market for ARM server vendors to ply their wares in general-purpose applications and relational databases applications. The consumer ultimately wins, with lower cost pervasive information services available from great, big, green clouds powered by a little processor that could.

Karl Freund is VP of Marketing for Calxeda and Barry Evans is the CEO of the ARM-based server maker.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Torkildr.

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