2014 Will Be The Year That ARM Breaks The x86 Monoculture

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Graeme Caldwell works as an inbound marketer for InterWorx, a revolutionary web hosting control panel for hosts who need scalability and reliability.

Graeme-Caldwell-tnGRAEME CALDWELL
InterWorx

If you’d asked anyone from the last four decades with even a modicum of tech knowledge to describe a server, they’d have given you the same basic response. They would have described a box containing discrete components, including a processor module, memory, various controllers, and the buses that connect them. That’s been the model on which servers have been built for decades and its a model that has shaped the way data centers are built.

It’s not a model that is infinitely scalable. We live in a data-centric world. The quantities of data the worldwide data infrastructure has to process, store and transmit is growing rapidly. Faster processing and higher bandwidth has given the world a glimpse of the potential that “big data” has to change our lives. Everything from social media and search engines to disaster planning and the nascent “Internet of Things” will continue to push at the limitations of our available infrastructure, creating an outward pressure that incentivizes the building of ever more and ever larger data centers.

However, because of the inherent limitations engendered by the x86 architecture, the servers built around that architecture, and the data centers constructed to house and support those servers, there is also an inward pressure that incentivizes a radical change to the way we think about building servers and architecting data centers. Data is currently too expensive to manage, both in terms of infrastructure investment and power consumption. In addition to expanding the number of data centers, we also need to focus on making those data centers as efficient as possible.

ARM Comes to Market

Over the last few years, ARM System-On-Chip components have been hailed as part of the solution. ARM SoCs, which take advantage of the the power efficiencies originally developed for mobile platforms, have the potential to revolutionize how we think about architecting the data center and designing servers. While the power of each SoC pales in comparison to a full blown server processor, multiple SoC units can be efficiently clustered into servers that blow away traditional architectures when it comes to processing power/watt and number of compute cores per square meter.

Many companies have released and are currently working on ARM SoC based server products, including Calxeda and HP. Intel, recognizing that future trends are likely to seriously impact their x86 lines, have also been developing their Atom-based Avoton low-powered SoCs, which have something of an edge in that they are currently available in 64-bit variants, while ARM SoCs presently on the market are limited to 32 bits. All that will change next year though, with the introduction of 64-bit components from Calxeda, HP, and Applied Micro.

Processor Market is Expanding

For the first time in a long time, we’ll have a competitive market, with multiple manufacturers designing both general purpose SoC based servers and SoCs custom built to maximize efficiency on particular tasks, like running memcached instances. We can expect to see the pace of change accelerate as competing vendors strive to differentiate themselves with ever more efficient and powerful SoC-based products.

Forward thinking providers of web hosting services and software should be aware of the coming shift towards low-power ARM-based SoC architecture and begin to make their products available on that platform. InterWorx, the company behind the InterWorx Web Control Panel, in partnership with Calxeda, has already demonstrated the viability of their advanced clustering technology on ARM architecture. As a proof-of-concept, they also have a site that runs on a pair of clustered Raspberry Pi’s, the ARM-based credit card-sized computer.

In coming years, the web hosting industry and the wider data center industry are going to experience huge changes as low-powered servers revolutionize the way we think about data center architecture and efficiency.

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2 Comments

  1. Jan Hoppe

    ARM has 64-bit architecture: http://www.arm.com/products/processors/armv8-architecture.php Thanks, Jasio

  2. Hi Jan, It's true that ARM does have architectures for 64-bit chips available for licensing, but ARM is a processor design company, not a chip manufacturer. In order for 64-bit ARM architecture to make its way into the data center, chip manufacturers have to license those designs and use them to build SoC components appropriate for servers. That's what Calxeda, HP, and others are working on at the moment — in most cases with product launches planned for next year. Thanks, Graeme.