Dell testing 64-bit ARM server with chip from AppliedMicro

AppliedMicro showed the system at ARM's TechCon show, though it was only a prototype

Dell has built a prototype server based on a 64-bit ARM processor from Applied Micro Circuits, which showed the system at a conference in Silicon Valley on Thursday.

Dell has already said it was testing servers based on 32-bit ARM chips from Marvel and Calxeda, but this is the first time it has shown any hardware based on a 64-bit ARM processor. Sixty-four-bit chips are generally better suited to server use than 32-bit parts.

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Proponents say ARM chips will be more energy efficient than x86 processors that Intel makes for certain cloud and analytics workloads, but the market is in its early stages, with plenty of hardware and software development work to be done. Analysts estimate the first 64-bit ARM servers won't actually hit the market before 2014.

AppliedMicro hosted a session on Thursday at ARM's TechCon conference, where it tried to illustrate how various elements of the 64-bit ARM server "ecosystem" are coming together.

It was joined by representatives from Red Hat and Cloudera, both of whom said they'll have software ready for testing on 64-bit ARM chips next year. Oracle was also there, pledging a version of Java SE for 64-bit ARM processors, though it didn't give a timeframe.

AppliedMicro CEO Paramesh Gopi, in full showman mode, pulled away a black cloth cover to reveal the Dell server at the end of his talk. He didn't describe it in any detail but it appeared to be a two-rack-unit chassis with four or five individual servers, or "sleds," that slide into the frame.

The hardware was a prototype, and it's still unknown if Dell will actually sell an ARM-based server using AppliedMicro technology. Dell is experimenting with ARM components from several suppliers, and it was also at AMD's event Monday when it announced plans to build ARM-based server chips.

"We don't have any plans to make generally available an ARM-based server right now -- that includes the Applied Micro-based prototype you saw," Dell spokeswoman Erin Zehr said via email. "We're currently focused on ecosystem enablement -- giving developers access to clusters so they can test or write to ARM," she said.

The processor inside the Dell system, which AppliedMicro called an "X-Gene" processor, was also an early prototype. Gopi said X-Gene parts will be ready for customers to begin testing in the first quarter next year, with commercial products coming later in 2013.

But AppliedMicro does now have actual prototype silicon, which is a step up from the HotChips conference in August, when it showed a server board with a mock-up chip.

It demonstrated its hardware in action Thursday. It showed a website running on what Gopi said was a prototype X-Gene server built by AppliedMicro and located in a remote data center. He streamed a trailer for the new James Bond film, which appeared to run smoothly.

"We are literally months away, ladies and gentlemen," he said. "In Q1 next year, you'll have not only silicon but also the software I just showed you and systems to go around it." He was still referring to prototype systems, however.

Gopi also unveiled three server reference designs that AppliedMicro has come up with, to show server makers what they can build. They're dubbed X-Memory, X-Compute and X-Storage, depending on the target application.

The X-Storage system is aimed at Hadoop-type analytics applications, and combines a sea of hard disks with a single X-Gene server board. It had a total 36TB of storage, Gopi said.

ARM offers two types of licenses for its chip designs. Companies can buy an architectural license, as AppliedMicro did, and design their own processor from scratch. That allows for greater customization, but takes more time and money. They can also buy a license for a finished processor design.

ARM unveiled its 64-bit architecture, ARMv8, at last year's TechCon. The news earlier this week was that ARM has now released its first 64-bit processor designs, the Cortex-A57 and A53. Chips based on those designs could appear by the end of this year.

James Niccolai covers data centers and general technology news for IDG News Service. Follow James on Twitter at @jniccolai. James's email address is james_niccolai@idg.com.

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