AMD, ARM and Andreessen Take On the Data Center

by Sean Michael Kerner

ARM for the data center gets new life and a vote of confidence from Internet browser pioneer Marc Andreesen. Intel isn't impressed.

ARM-based silicon in server designs for data center deployments were a big topic of discussion in 2012 and 2013, though few real deployments occurred as the technology deliverables have lagged. At the Open Compute Summit this week, ARM backers have re-asserted their commitments to revolutionize the data center with low-power, high-density ARM servers.

In a keynote at the Open Compute Summit, Ian Drew, CMO and Executive VP at ARM, detailed how ARM is now poised to invade the data center over the next five years. As part of ARM's plan to be a real player in the data center, the group announced the new Server Base System Architecture specification.

"This is being put in place so we can standardize and we can have one single image of an operating across all ARMv8 servers," Drew said. "For ARM, the ecosystem can innovate in areas that are important to the ecosystem and not at the microcontroller or SoC (system on a chip) level."

Drew stressed that the promise of the new specification is that application developers will not need to port their applications to multiple vendor specific flavors of ARM.

"Innovation is important, it's important to scalability and the business model around that is not proprietary, it's working together" Drew said.

The vision of ARM in the data center has multiple backers, including silicon vendor AMD. At the Open Compute Summit AMD announced that it is now sampling a 64-bit ARM Opteron A-Series processor codenamed "Seattle." The AMD Seattle processors will support up to 8 ARM Cortex A57 processors.

"The new ARM-based AMD Opteron A-Series processor brings the experience and technology portfolio of an established server processor vendor to the ARM ecosystem and provides the ideal complement to our established AMD Opteron x86 server processors," Suresh Gopalakrishnan, corporate vice president and general manager of the AMD server business unit, said in a statement.

Marc Andreessen, the renowned Internet browser pioneer and now venture capitalist with his firm Andreessen Marc AndreessenHorowitz, is also an ARM backer.

During a session at the Open Compute Summit, Andreessen said that it is his view that in next 20 years many of the same component types that are in smartphones today will be in data centers. He noted the ARM processors and flash storage that dominate the smartphone market are two prime examples.

Andreesen also detailed a very specific view on why he is very bullish on the future of ARM in the data center.

"Every large-scale Internet service that I'm aware is bound by the cost of the data center and they are all I/O bound," Andreessen said. "We deal with very few Internet applications at scale that are CPU bound."

Andreessen stressed that for him, it's all about power, cooling, efficiency and space in the data center.

"The opportunity with ARM and ultimately much more efficient server chips from other vendors, including Intel, is a 5x reduction in data center costs by packing more server chips into the same data center," Andreessen said.

Intel Not Overly Concerned

For its part, Intel has been continuously innovating at multiple levels to improve power efficiency and cooling. Though Intel is aware of ARM's data center push, the silicon giant isn't too worried.

"It has been about four years now since ARM announced its entry into the datacenter, so it's interesting that they are just now getting around to issuing a spec," Intel spokesperson Ellen Healy told ServerWatch.

Healy commented that clearly, software compatibility and fragmentation across ARM SoCs from different vendors has proven to be a roadblock. She added that Intel has yet to see a 64-bit ARM-based commercially available server, and the continued moving target on actual deployments shows the transition to 64-bit is proving to be more difficult than many expected.

"We don’t take the competition lightly, but until the corresponding software ecosystem matches the hardware ecosystem for ARM suppliers, the question of ARM being a formidable server competitor is a bit unclear," Healy said.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at ServerWatch and InternetNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @TechJournalist.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Jan 30th 2014
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