Dell ARMs itself with new proof-of-concept 64-bit 'microserver'

Dell offers prototype ARM-based 64-bit server for private testing to 'select customers,' but actual data center use is still a long way off

During the last two years, Dell's been pushing its nose all the more into the low-power 64-bit ARM server tent -- but only by slow inches, much like the rest of the industry.

Yesterday Dell announced yet another small but intriguing step forward:a new proof-of-concept 64-bit ARM server design, available to testers and software developers, as the next stage in Dell's evolution of ARM servers.

But don't hold your breath for this to be available in a 1U form factor. Right now, the server's strictly a proof-of-concept offering, designed mainly "to further accelerate the development of the 64-bit ARM ecosystem and support testing with select customers." This server appears to be a more developed version of a prototype that was demonstrated in October 2013.

No, this server isn't available to the general public -- yet. Any word on a finished product that could be sold to customers or end-users is still a ways off.

Small wonder, considering that Ian Drew, chief marketing officer for ARM, has described the shift to ARM in the data center as "a five-year revolution." That timeframe might well include both the time needed for Dell and other server makers to produce something useful, as well as the time needed for the new technology to make headway in data centers.

Dell made some noise back in October 2012 when it donated its ARM-based server proof-of-concept design, code-named "Zinc," to the Apache Software Foundation. Zinc ran on a Calxeda EnergyCore system-on-chip, which drew as little as 1.5 watts but included an 80Gbit network fabric switch on the same piece of silicon.

HP also designed ARM-based systems based on Calxeda's processors that were due to ship sometime this year, but Calxeda went bust late in 2013, and HP has since demoed versions of its Moonshot ARM server using processors from a competitor, AppliedMicro. The new Dell design uses AppliedMicro's X-Gene 64-bit ARM SoC, a server-specific design built around an ARMv8 CPU and with an on-chip fabric design similar to what Calxeda's processors offered.

Upheavals in the ARM industry and the adoption of the hardware itself aside, the biggest bottlenecks to getting 64-bit ARM server hardware into play involve software -- applications and system software, the latter more than the former. Last week's Open Compute Summit showed how some progress was being made, mainly through ARM itself offering a common system architecture for ARM-based server designs. Software makers could then target a single, universal ARM server design, called the Server Base System Architecture, which Dell has committed to support. But that kind of support can't come into place overnight; hence Dell's provisioning of a proof-of-concept to get the software ball rolling.

Piece by piece, ARM in the data center is becoming more than just a nifty idea. But the pieces are coming together slowly, in big part because replacing x86 with ARM isn't a rip-and-replace job, and never has been.

This story, "Dell ARMs itself with new proof-of-concept 64-bit 'microserver'," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.