"What happened this year is you started to see the roadmaps and products. It became 'real' but that doesn't mean it's going to gain market share next year," Scaramella said.
A break in traditional server architecture with ARM will be closely watched, but the impact will be felt in 2013 at the earliest, said Dan Olds, principal analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group. Almost every major server maker could be experimenting with ARM processors, Olds said.
"If it's real enough for an HP to give it a shot, that means it's real," Olds said. "It depends upon what you think about the 64-bit roadmap for ARM."
Current ARM processors only support 32-bit addressing and also have limited error correction features. With 64-bit, computers can address larger amounts of storage and memory, which is beneficial for data-intensive applications. ARM in late October introduced its first 64-bit microprocessor architecture, ARMv8, aiming it at devices ranging from sensors to high-end servers.
The idea of coupling graphics processors with ARM processors is also fascinating, Olds said. Graphics processors are being used on many of the world's fastest supercomputers, and are capable of much faster performance at running some applications than traditional CPUs.
"Such a combination would offer much higher density, more computations per watt and lower cost," Olds said.
Graphics processors are trickling down from high-performance computers and are being used increasingly used for high-performance computing in the energy, pharmaceuticals, financial services, media and other industries, Olds said.
But analysts agree that switching from x86 to ARM could be a challenge due to the hardware and software issues. Customers are already struggling with decisions on purchases with many server options available, including workload-optimized systems that bundle the server, storage, networking and software. Switching to ARM could be disruptive and have its benefits, but it may take time to implement.
"It's a journey; it's not happening overnight," IDC's Scaramella said.
Purdue University CIO Gerry McCartney echoed that belief, saying the university has a lot invested in its current IT infrastructure. The university largely relies on x86 servers, and a lot of the code used by researchers is written for the x86 instruction set.
"Researchers do not want to change software," McCartney said. He said an effort many years ago to move from x86 to another architecture didn't pan out, and a lot of thought would go into switching over to a new architecture.
But the university likely won't move away from x86 because Intel's server chips are becoming increasingly power-efficient, McCartney said. As an example, Purdue's Carter supercomputer, which ranks 54th on the world's Top 500 list of the world's fastest supercomputers, provides more performance-per-watt than four supercomputers with Intel chips bought over the last four years.
"I could get rid of the four previous machines, and use a quarter of the power that they are currently now consuming," McCartney said. The performance-power ratio on Intel chips is improving with every new chipset, he said.
"There have been some modest improvements in space, and we're pleased in terms of power consumption," McCartney said.