SAN JOSE, Calif. ARM Ltd. has been running a part of its Web site on ARM-based servers for about nine months as a real-world trial of its technology. In addition, at least one partner is exploring server applications using two- to four-core versions of the ARM Cortex A9.
ARM aims to address select segments of the server market, including Internet data centers for companies such as Amazon.com and Facebook with ARM's existing 32-bit processors. Others big data center operators such as Google and Yahoo require 64-bit processors to handle memory-intensive algorithms such as MapReduce and Hadoop.
The big data centers want to increase compute density while lowering power and heat, dynamics that favor ARM chips. They also use their own Linux-based software stacks and do not require Windows and its applications which are currently not supported by ARM.
ARM chief executive Warren East told EE Times last week that ARM-based servers should emerge within 12 months. The company also is targeting its chips for use in routers, wireless basestations and other communications gear.
"Don’t expect [ARM-based servers] on the shelf at Fry's Electronics anytime soon—it's a longer term play," said Ian Ferguson, director of enterprise and embedded market segments in ARM's Silicon Valley office.
Part of ARM's Web site is running on servers made from a number of off-the-shelf Marvell processors based on the ARM V architecture running at a gigahertz. "Its' not optimized hardware, but an experiment to see what the holes were in the software story," said Ferguson in an interview at the Embedded Systems Conference.
The effort used the so-called LAMP stack of Linux, Apache, MySQ and Perl or Python scripting languages. "We've learned that [ARM servers are] viable, and we don’t think there's too many much to do on software side to get that ready," Ferguson said.
The servers will not have the raw performance to tackle big banking database or the Windows backing to run many mainstream server applications. However "there's an increasing group of servers that value the low power we have, and we have gotten to a point where our performance is good enough," Ferguson said.
A mixed group of chip and system companies could bring ARM-based servers to market.
"We expect to see some silicon suppliers [make ARM processors for servers] and some OEMs [design the chips] for their internal use," Ferguson said. "Some OEMs want to take more control over their path in a range of markets," he added.
The New York Times reported in October two startups are driving mobile processors into servers--Smooth Stone (Austin) using ARM chips and SeaMicro (Santa Clara, Calif.) using Intel Atom based chips. Neither company was immediately available for an interview.
ARM will need the backing of a giant such as Dell, Hewlett-Packard, IBM or Oracle's Sun Microsystems unit, said Nathan Brookwood, principal of market watcher Insight64 (Saratoga, Calif.). Together they command as much as 70 percent of the server market, with most of the rest split between a wide group of relatively small white-box server makers, he said.
Despite interest, ARM is trying to keep a low profile on its market-development efforts in servers. "It’s a new space for us and as a company we'd like the technology to prove itself rather than beat our chests," said Ferguson.