In 2012 a fundamental change in server architecture could be on tap as companies look to cut data center costs with the help of technologies like ARM processors and graphics chips, analysts said.
Low-power processors from companies like ARM could be in full use in data centers by 2013, and mixing them up with graphics chips could bring massive performance improvements and power savings, analysts said. Experiments around implementing ARM processors in servers are already underway, and graphics chips are already being used in some of the world's fastest supercomputers.
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Power efficiency has been among the top determining factors in server purchases as customers keep costs in mind while deploying applications, analysts said. This year, there was a spike in the build-out of cloud and high-performance servers around the hyperscale model, in which servers are densely packed to cut power consumption while scaling performance. For further power savings, companies in the future could consider using servers with low-power ARM processors, which are used in most tablets and smartphones today.
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"Customers are experimenting with a lot of different technologies. They are trying to gain efficiency," said Jed Scaramella, research manager at IDC. Companies are measuring dollars-per-kilowatt and dollars-per-square-foot, and in servers measuring performance-per-watt more closely than ever.
The growth of the cloud is partly driving server sales, with many companies building out public and private clouds. Many two-socket x86 servers were purchased for cloud implementations around the hyperscale model, which allows new servers to be easily plugged in to scale performance. Servers in the hyperscale model are also being used for applications such as analytics and business intelligence.
"They're not disposable, but they are aimed at a low-cost point. It's really about energy efficiency ... and how fast you can scale them," Scaramella said.
Dense servers with ARM processors could be an alternative to x86-based technology in the coming years as IT managers factor in density and lower-power requirements. Analysts have said that a congregation of low-power ARM processors could provide more power-efficient processing of cloud transactions than traditional x86 server chips like Intel's Xeon or Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron, which are more power hungry. The chips based on ARM processors would however lag x86 chips on data-intensive tasks such as database and ERP (enterprise resource planning).
Some companies this year introduced experimental servers with ARM processors. Hewlett-Packard last month announced server designs with a chip from Calxeda, which includes a quad-core ARM processor and consumes as little as 1.5 watts of power. Nvidia last month said a supercomputer was being built in Barcelona around its Tegra 3 chip, which has a quad-core ARM CPU, and that the Tegra 3 chips were being paired with discrete graphics processors to speed up scientific and math calculations.