Intel has long dominated the data center — their high-performance server chips have been the processors of choice for many years. However, British chip designer ARM, better known for its almost ubiquitous presence in mobile devices, is starting to make significant inroads, and that is going to have an impact on how hosting companies run their data centers and lease colocation space.
We’re in the early days of ARM in the data center, but the promise of ARM’s low-power chip designs is recognized by many, including server manufacturers, web hosting software vendors, and even Intel and AMD are trying to get in on the action.
So, what’s all the fuss about?
Lower Power Consumption
ARM’s dominance of the mobile space is almost entirely based on its expertise in building chips with a very low power consumption. Modern servers suck up huge amounts of energy; electricity is probably the single biggest expense for most hosting providers, both for powering the chips and keeping them cool.
ARM architecture chips use significantly less power and don’t require the same level of cooling. That has cost implications for hosting companies and could even influence the way that data centers are designed.
Better Power-to-Performance Ratio
Although ARM chips individually don’t match up to their bigger siblings from Intel, they can be clustered into packages that can be used to build servers that outstrip traditional machines using the same amount of electricity.
Customizability And Task Specific Acceleration
Server chips have traditionally come in a limited number of SKUs. Whatever inherent limitations a particular chipset had, users were stuck with it. Because ARM licenses its chips to foundries and other chip manufacturers, there is considerable scope for the creation of SOCs (systems on a chip) that are enhanced for particular purposes. For example, researchers at Facebook and HP have proposed a custom-built chip optimized for running memcached. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that manufacturers could develop SOCs for a range of data center specific applications, producing performance improvements in the areas of particular concern to hosting companies.
ARM in the data center is a fairly new phenomenon, but given the advantages, we’d be willing to bet that we’ll be seeing big changes in the way servers are built over the coming years. At HostingCon this past year, we demoed InterWorx clustering a 24-node Boston server running Calxeda ARM chips, and we’re continuing our work to make InterWorx fully compatible with ARM architecture. Interested in keeping tabs on our progress? Sign up for our ARM mailing list!