Dell is experimenting with chips based on ARM processors in its servers, but the architecture faces software issues that could stop it from being a viable alternative to x86 in the short term, a company executive said on Wednesday.
Some Dell clients are intrigued by low-power servers with ARM processors, which have interesting attributes related to power and density in data centers, said Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of server platforms for Dell. However, there are major concerns about the weak software ecosystem surrounding ARM.
"Fundamentally it's a software issue," Norrod said. "Are there enough benefits from that architecture for porting your code over to that new instruction set... and maintain[ing] two different software stacks? It's never as trivial as it sounds."
Alternative to x86
Many servers run on Intel's Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices' Opteron chips, but there is a growing interest in adding low-power x86 netbook chips as companies look to cut energy bills. Dell already offers low-power servers with Via's Nano chips on a selective basis, and startup SeaMicro last week announced a low-power server that includes 256 of Intel's latest Atom N570 dual-core processors.
There are also time and cost issues associated with porting software from x86 to ARM, Norrod said. But the prospect of ARM processors, which are used in most of the world's smartphones and tablets, being an alternative to x86 is drawing attention.
"The jury's still out, this thread is causing Intel and AMD to shift gears," Norrod said.
Norrod said that Dell has a good sense of what the ARM ecosystem will look like for the next 12 to 18 months. Depending on customer demand and viability, the company will have a strategy in place to release ARM-based servers.
ARM, which licenses CPU designs to chip makers, started talking about server processors in 2008. Marvell in November announced an ARM-based quad-core chip for servers, marking the chip designer's entry into the server market. Calxeda and Nvidia are also developing chips based on ARM cores.
ARM doesn't have the history in the server market, and most of the software tuning takes place for the x86 architecture, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.
Some companies are also reluctant to experiment with new architectures such as ARM especially when running critical applications, McCarron said. Intel's Xeon has RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features to solve data errors on the fly and ensure high server uptime.
"Being a new guy precludes [ARM] from getting activity in that market," McCarron said.
ARM processors could find a start in web servers, which are generally used for less critical activity. ARM-based chips could also be used in low-end servers sitting on shelves in offices, McCarron said.
Analysts have also pointed out that the ARM architecture has limitations that make the chip limited in scope for servers. The company's upcoming Cortex-A15 processor has a 32-bit design, while x86 chips such as Intel's latest Atom processors have 64-bit extensions.
On a recent earnings call, ARM CEO Warren East said the company would ultimately add 64-bit extensions to its processor, but that a sizeable chunk of the server market was already available with its current 32-bit designs as few server applications used 64-bit applications.
Norrod said that ARM is just one of the interesting storylines that have made the server market the most exciting since the earlier part of the past decade, when blade servers were being introduced in the market. Significant technological development and multiple demand drivers have led to new server designs and form factors, Norrod said.
"It got boring, but it's not boring anymore," Norrod said.
Beyond ARM processors, Dell will continue to expand in the low-power server space with x86 chips. The company will announce new microservers by the end of the month, which could come with the option of low-power netbook chips, a Dell spokesman said.
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