Introducing the 5-watt server that runs on cell phone chips

Can ARM (s ARMH) wrestle its way into the server market? Calxeda and Hewlett-Packard (s HPQ) think so. On Tuesday Calxeda launched its EnergyCore ARM server-on-a-chip (SoC), which it says consumes as little as 1.5 watts (and idles at half a watt). And HP, the world’s largest server maker, committed to building EnergyCore-based servers that will consume as little as 5 watts when running all out. Compare that to the lowest-power x86 server chips from Intel, which consume about 20 watts but deliver higher performance.

Calxeda, backed in part by ARM Holdings (s ARMH), is banking that the success that ARM chips found in smartphones and mobile devices will carry over into data centers serving large, scale-out workloads. In that arena, it is facing off squarely against chip giant Intel (s INTC) and its x86-based architecture, which dominates the market for chips running in commodity servers.

Said Calxeda in a statement:

Thanks to its mobile phone heritage and patent-pending innovations from Calxeda, the new processor consumes less than one tenth the power of today’s most energy-efficient server processors and is ideal for workloads such as web serving, ‘Big Data’ applications, scalable analytics such as Apache Hadoop, media streaming and mid-tier infrastructure such as caching and in-memory databases.

EnergyCore targets web serving, big data apps

The small form factor and energy stinginess of EnergyCore, based on the ARM Cortex processor, suits an emerging and fast-growing class of web and cloud applications, but it lacks in terms of software support and currently won’t support the enterprise demand for 64-bit processors. Thus, for traditional data centers locked into the Intel x86 architecture and with lots of legacy software to run, Calxeda might be a stretch. But that might not matter.

“For big cloud companies that buy gargantuan numbers of servers and for whom the power and space issues get linearly nasty as they build up the number of nodes, this is a good solution,” said analyst Roger Kay, the founder and president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.

These sorts of transactions take on an almost consultative nature, where the server vendor works with the customer’s developers, he said.

EnergyCore is 32-bit only, a fact that Intel will no doubt trumpet. “High-performance computing [HPC] needs 64 bits to deal with larger address space, but that doesn’t mean that 32-bit [processors] can’t address certain data center applications,” Kay said. “This new chip is designed to handle very large databases that in turn handle lots of queries from many end points. Think Google Earth where there are lots of simple queries — ‘show me the bits in the X-Y grid specified.'”

HP estimates that those big scale-out web and cloud data center scenarios represent a healthy 10 to 15 percent of the data center market, Kay noted. That’s certainly worth fighting for. Intel pegs that segment at 10 percent of the overall market.

Richard Fichera, the VP and an analyst at Forrester Research, said Calxeda did its homework. “This looks to be at least three to five times more energy efficient than other chips and [energy use] is a growing concern for data centers.” Some of what Calxeda has done will be hard for competitors to replicate, he said.

Calxeda, like SeaMicro, which makes low-power servers running Intel Atom processors, also builds on a fabric that lets all the various SoC components communicate inside the box.

Skeptics point out that big data center buyers tend to be a conservative lot, not likely to gamble on a new chip architecture. “Many CIOs will go with the devil they know. They have software that runs on Intel so why move?” Kay said. But again, Calxeda and HP are seeking out the biggest of the big data center companies — those that have a lot of in-house development talent that are not as bound by legacy software concerns.

What’s in EnergyCore SoC?

  • Multicore ARM Cortex processor running at 1.1 GHz to 1.4 GHz
  • Supports FPU (scalar) and NEON (SIMD) Floating Point
  • 4 MB of onboard shared L2 cache
  • Integrated Memory Controller with 72-bit datapath, and ECC
  • Typical maximum power consumption (running 100% CPU load under normal conditions) is 5 watts
  • Typical idle power consumption is less than .5 watts

Calxeda and HP will start rolling out sample products later this year, with volume ramping up in 2012. Calxeda is not alone in this arena: Marvell Inc. is already in the market with its own ARM-based servers. NVIDIA is also building an ARM-based server, dubbed Denver, for HPC.

While Calxeda is tiny compared to Intel, it also doesn’t manufacture its own silicon, which could end up hurting it when comparing it to Intel, one of the last silicon vendors to own its own chip manufacturing. Fichera notes that Calxeda has no control over the distribution and sales of what it designs: The server partner has all the leverage. If someone else has a better SoC next year, Calxeda (or whatever SoC provider they use) could be gone.