In 2013, we, and numerous other technology blogs, wrote frequently about the way in which ARM-powered servers are likely to change the data center landscape. Many went so far as to argue that 2013 was the year of the ARM server. The potential benefits are fairly obvious. ARM chips are inherently more power efficient than the Intel chips that dominate data centers. Increased power efficiency leads to decreased electricity and cooling costs, which are a significant chunk of data center spending. Additionally, ARM chip designs can be licensed to other chip designers and manufacturers, potentially inaugurating an era of System-on-a-Chip machines designed to be efficient at specific tasks and innovative new server and data center architecting.
ARM chips are also less powerful, but that’s not necessarily a negative, given that lots of smaller servers are often easier to manage for efficient utilization and involve fewer wasted resources than a small number of powerful servers, and ARM chips can be used at a significantly greater density than alternatives — all of which is especially pertinent when we consider the trend toward bare metal clouds and containers, and away from virtualized clouds.
Since then, ARM in the data center has been hitting the headlines less often. In large part, that was due to the failure of ARM server startup Calxeda, which ran out of money before it could bring its 64 bit product to a wide market.
But we’re starting to see an uptick in attention to ARM servers once again. Calxeda was ahead of the market, but the company’s technology didn’t evaporate: its assets were bought by cloud gaming company Silver Lining Systems and many of its engineers were hired by Amazon, who are thought to be making their own push into the ARM server space.
Scaleway is an innovative ARM bare metal cloud vendor that went all on the ARM chip concept, designing and building its own ARM servers and launching a bare metal cloud platform with pricing that competes with virtualized cloud providers like Digital Ocean (and is a great system on which to deploy bare metal clusters with InterWorx). We’ve discussed bare metal cloud’s advantages over virtualized clouds frequently on this blog, and those advantages are multiplied when joined with the cost and efficiency benefits of ARM SoC servers.
Lenovo, Hewlett Packard, and Dell have also shown considerable interest in the ARM server, and are all working towards creating ARM SoC servers.
“Lenovo, now the world’s third-largest server vendor, is working with the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), a research organization in the United Kingdom to develop and test highly energy-efficient servers optimized for scale-out workloads in such environments as high-performance computing (HPC), cloud computing and Web hosting.”
It would be overly bold to say that 2015 will be the year of the ARM server, but it’s heartening to note that work is still ongoing to bring the low-power chips to the data center.