Early ARM 64-bit prototype servers could come by year end

ARM is working with Applied Micro Circuits to put out cheap 64-bit ARM servers by end of year or mid next year

Early prototype 64-bit ARM servers could be available for testing purposes by the end of this year or possibly at the latest by the middle of next year, ARM said on Monday.

ARM will try to make inexpensive 64-bit server hardware available by working with partner Applied Micro Circuits, which has licensed the chip designer's 64-bit ARMv8 architecture, said Ian Ferguson, director of server systems and ecosystem at ARM.

Interest in ARM servers is growing as companies look for a power-efficient way to process large volumes of online transactions. Low-power ARM processors are found in smartphones and tablets, but some believe thousands of ARM servers could efficiently process fast-moving transactions such as search or social network requests.

HP and Dell are among the high-profile server markets offering prototype ARM servers for testing and benchmarking. Despite the promise, Dell has said that ARM servers are not yet ready for implementation in data centers due to software issues and the lack of 64-bit addressing. The server market is ruled by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, which make processors based on the x86 architecture.

Ferguson's comments came ahead of the Intel Developer Forum trade show, which will start tomorrow in San Francisco. Intel is expected to share more details about its upcoming 64-bit low-power Atom server processor code-named Centerton as it tries to counter the threat posed by ARM.

ARM hopes the 64-bit prototype ARM servers will provide an opportunity for developers to write and test applications, which could promote adoption of the architecture.

"With AppliedMicro, we'll look to put really low-cost 64-bit hardware," Ferguson said. "Some people want real hardware in their own lab. If we can drive that down to cheap pricing we'll do that with AppliedMicro so people can get ready for 64-bit."

The prototype servers will carry AppliedMicro's X-Gene chip, which is based on a 64-bit ARM architecture. AppliedMicro has said they will likely have chips ready by the end of the year.

"I would expect they would be put into platforms and shipping on platforms in the 2014 timeframe," Ferguson said.

The AppliedMicro chips are much more powerful than existing ARM processors from companies like Calxeda or Marvell, which offer server chips with 32-bit ARM processors. The new X-Gene chips will operate at higher clock speeds and carry more ARM cores, Ferguson said.

ARM will also launch new processor designs code-named Apollo and Atlas based on the ARM-v8 architecture by the end of the year. Ferguson didn't share further details, but said one processor design will be 64-bit, while the other will be 32-bit.

"You can expect to see hardware based on those cores in 2014," Ferguson said.

ARM currently has five architectural licensees, including Cavium, Nvidia and AppliedMicro. The two other licensees will be announced at a later date.

But ARM also realizes it won't unseat Intel overnight in the server market.

"We've set a modest expectation of market share in 2014. We've said a percent or two," Ferguson said. "We're not going to suddenly from nothing to twenty percent or anything like that."

ARM is also laying out tools to promote software development for its 64-bit instruction set. The company released a 64-bit Linux distribution a month ago with support for the ARMv8 instruction set, and the OS is being repurposed and picked up for major Linux distributions, Ferguson said.

The company is also talking to hosting providers to run ARM servers, and some cloud implementations are being tested on ARM processors via hosting provider Rackspace. The servers run the LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP software) stack. OpenStack and Hadoop have also been optimized for the server.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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