Dell on Tuesday announced a prototype low-power server with ARM processors, following a growing demand by Web companies for custom-built servers that can scale performance while reducing financial overhead on data centers.
The proof-of-concept server is code-named Copper and is the first one from Dell that is based on the ARM processor. Dell will not sell the server, but will install prototypes at specific locations so customers can kick the tires around ARM, whose processor designs are found in most smartphones and tablets today.
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Some of the world's largest Web companies, including Facebook and Google, buy servers in volume to boost performance while lowering power costs. However, as companies look to cut data center costs, there also is a growing interest in low-power ARM processors for servers. Servers sold today by Dell are based on x86 processors from Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, which are used in most data centers.
ARM processors are slower than their x86 counterparts, but have power-efficiency, density, and price attributes that intrigue customers, said Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of server platforms at Dell. Customers are curious about the possibility of cutting power costs by packing together a large congregation of ARM servers to quickly process requests related to, for example, social media or search.
"We think ARM is a potentially relevant technology to several sets of core customers," Norrod said. "Our customers are echoing the same thing and asking us to help in this evaluation."
Experiments around implementing ARM in servers as an alternative to x86 for cloud and supercomputing applications are already under way. Hewlett-Packard has announced ARM-based server designs and chip maker Nvidia has mixed its Tegra 3 chips and graphics processors in a Barcelona supercomputer. Intel has upped the ante with its recent low-power Xeon E3 processors for cloud computing customers.
ARM is good for tasks that don't require a lot of complex calculations, but need to be processed concurrently, said Jim McGregor, president at Tirias Research. In addition to processing Web transactions, ARM chips could power security-oriented tasks, like matching a snapshot of an individual at an airport to a database of hundreds of millions of people. But ARM still cannot match up with chips from Intel and AMD for resource-heavy tasks like databases.
Also, ARM into servers won't be a quick transition as companies need to validate the architecture, port software and match hardware installations with the server upgrade cycle, which on average is about three years, McGregor said.
"It's still very much in its infancy," McGregor said.
Norrod conceded that ARM is not ready for prime time on servers, and that it could be a few years until the architecture starts competing with rival chips from Intel and AMD. The current ARM processors lack many of the critical features sought in data centers today, such as 64-bit processing and memory capabilities. And while a majority of smartphones and tablet software is written for ARM processors, very little server software is being written for the architecture.
ARM, a U.K. company that licenses processors to chip makers, will support addressing only up to 40 bits with its upcoming Cortex-A15 processors. ARM has said its first 64-bit processors will be released later this year, with the first designs targeted at servers and smartphones. ARM said that chips from licensees based on ARMv8 will be in volume production in 2014.