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  Date: 10/08/2015

How 64-bit ARM Processor servers trending?

When a company called Calexda closed its operations, it was a setback for 64-bit ARM processor architecture based server development. Calexda was a startup fully focusing on ARM 64 bit, but there were some-what better established semiconductor vendors who have also started designing server chips using 64-bit ARM processor architecture. Now you can buy a Linux enterprise server from multiple vendors running on a ARM 64-bit processor core powered by Applied Micro's X-gene server chips which can run on Linux versions from multiple vendors. The latest one to support 64-bit ARM server processors is SUSE. Red Hat and Ubuntu are already supporting 64-bit ARM Processor cores.

There's plenty of analysis reported online comparing Intel's Xeon versus ARM 64-bit server chips. Our overall finding is ARM 64-bit server chips are closing the gap with Intel's Xeon members in some specific applications of servers. However Intel is offering power and performance advantage to its customers by making the chips in nodes such as 14 nm, whereas the ARM 64-bit server chip vendors such as Applied Micro and Cavium are still with 28 nm nodes. Since the foundries such as TSMC, Globalfoundries and Samsung are offering 16 nm and 14 nm processes in production mode, it helps these ARM 64-bit fabless companies to compete better with Intel. 22nm FDSOI from Globalfoundries makes a better case for these kind of products.

The two most focused/visible semiconductor vendors building on 64-bit processor based chips for Linux enterprise servers are Applied Micro and Cavium Networks. AMD is also ready with the server chips powered by ARM 64-bit server processor cores, but it is yet not putting that product on top of the selling table. QUALCOMM and Avago/Broadcom are the other two leading semiconductor vendors getting into ARM 64-bit. Supercomputer company Cray is exploring 64-bit ARM Processor cores for designing supercomputer. Cray is also working with Cavium to deliver Cray clusters based on Cavium's 48-core work load optimized ThunderX ARM Processors.

When it comes to server vendors, HP leads the pack by offering ARM 64-bit processor core powered server platform. Dell, E4 Computer Engineering, and SoftIron are also in this market. HP's Moonshot Proliant m300 is powered by Applied Micro's X- gene processors and is running on RHELSA 7.1 from Redhat.

E4 Computer Engineering announced the new ARKA RK003 platform based on Applied Micro's X-Gene and NVIDIA Tesla K40 GPU compute engine and the high performance Mellanox Technologies ConnectX-3 FDR 56Gb/s InfiniBand adapter. Cirrascale is another recent company, which has developed RM2916 a high performance computing platform based on Applied MicrosX-Gene 64-bit ARM processor and upgraded NVIDIA Tesla K40 GPU and the high speed Mellanox ConnectX(R)-3 56 Gbps Infiniband adapter.

SUSE has made available to its partners such as Applied Micro Cavium and AMD, a version of SUSE Linux Enterprise 12 to develop, test servers using 64-bit ARM chips. SUSE Linux Enterprise 12 with AArch64-support for AMD Opteron A1100 Series processor Seattle, Applied Micro's X-Gene processor (only 64-bit ARM server solution in production), and Cavium's 48 core ARMv8 ThunderX is available.

Trends such as these will allow server designers to use Linux and ARM Processor core-based server chips and also Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) chips to build custom cloud /data centre systems for big data and IOT related applications.

We got to wait and see, if Intel will also offer customisable hardware platform powered by FPGA for server development, since it has agreed to acquire Altera. ARM server processors built along with programmable silicon base gets you a scalable server platform, which can be configured to meet diverse business and application needs in the data center, such as efficient web-scale workloads and rapid cloud build out.

In customised applications such as security, medical and network devices; hyperscale computing; distributed storage; and software-defined and classic networking, ARM 64-bit servers can have important role to play.

All this brings a good mix of computing power for a targeted task at a cost worth the investment. The clear trend is 64-bit server-based enterprise servers have arrived with enough punch to capture atleast some markets. But is this punch enough to match Intel's performance where Intel is not leaving anything undone which ARM offers as advantage. But there are areas where Intel has difficulty in matching ARM, such as ARM offers higher freedom in chip design architecture compared to x86. Intel can also find a bigger competitor in the combination of Broadcom and Avago ,where Avago agreed to acquire Broadcom. Broadcom has developed a 64-bit server processor platform called Vulcan. QUALCOMM is also a tough competitor to Intel if it enters ARM 64 server area.

If any Taiwan hardware vendor such as Advantech or many such vendors in Taiwan takes up this opportunity seriously and start delivering ARM 64 server hardware at a lesser cost, that can make a huge difference to the market. Taiwan-based Ambedded Technology is already into the server business selling Micro servers, storage servers, but they are based on Marvell Armada based ARMv7 CPU.

Once you have both mobile devices as well as servers running on ARM Processor cores, that makes the life of software engineer little easier due to lesser interface issues on the code its supposed to run on the mobile device gets into the cloud computer to save the computing resources in the mobile. ARM has found a knack in connecting 32-bit and 64-bit processor cores with lesser interface issues. ARM is early starter in the concept called Big.Little, where the computing is shared across processor cores depending on the need of the computing resources.

The only question is whether the companies such as Applied Micro and Cavium withstand lesser revenue stream-flow in these early stages of market entry.

Web Front End, Memory Caching, Big Data, Cloud Storage all the applications listed by Applied Micro for its X-Gene server on a chip. The cloud computing market is now more of indirect profit driven business model rather than a direct revenue generation. In such a situation the cost of data centres and also power consumption are important for making profit by datacentre companies. A few thousand dollars saving on a rackmount server, and also the generating lesser heat are indications that ARM server processor market will see some growth at the least. software-as-a-service, NFV are the areas predicted to see more ARM server deployment in future. In 2015, companies will start experimenting with ARM servers and will jack up in 2016, if they found TCO lesser for that performance.

Applied Micro has reported to have shipped over 1500 of X-Gene development kit to customers and prospects.
Author: Srinivasa Reddy N
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