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Dell skunkworks brews ARM server future

Cortex A9. LAMP stack. Eye of newt

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The ARM RISC processor owns the smartphone and handheld market that is starting to rival the traditional desktop and laptop PC in terms of functionality, and there is a very good chance that the chip will soon start making its way into the server racket.

Not from the bottom up, like the x86/x64 chips did, but from an oblique angle with hyperscale Web companies looking to cram more computing into less space while consuming less power.

At least, that is the thinking of Paul Prince, chief technology officer of Dell's Enterprise Products Group, which designs its general-purpose PowerEdge and semi-custom PowerEdge-C cloud boxes. Prince runs a team of several hundred engineers who in addition to creating those generic x64 servers also monkey around with different technologies.

Prince and his team have watched the ARM chip as it moves from handhelds into netbooks and other devices like routers and switches. The next logical place for ARM chips, once they get some support for virtualization and larger main memories, is in servers.

A lot depends on how the ecosystem develops around the impending "Osprey" Cortex-A9 MPCore, which scales to four cores, and the future "Eagle" Cortex-A15 multicore ARM processor, which will scales to a theoretical sixteen cores.

ARM Holdings doesn't make chips, but rather licenses designs, and last month the company unveiled the Eagle design and has the entire IT industry spoiling for a chip-slap. (If AMD had any sense, it would license the ARM design and scare the hell out of Intel.)

A year and a half ago, as it turns out, Dell's skunkworks in the Enterprise Products Group put together some baby servers using the Cortex-A8 processors (variants of which are in Apple iPhones and iPads as well as in Motorola Droids and many other devices) and using a 3-inch by 3-inch motherboard form factor.

"There are a lot of people dabbling with these ARM chips"

Dell got its BeagleBoard mobo, which is created by Circuitco Electronics and distributed by Digi-Key, slapped on a Linux-Apache-MySQL-PHP software stack, and then put them through the server paces.

The BeagleBoards support Windows CE, Linux, or Symbian operating systems, and Circuitco Electronics sells two single-board computers: one based on the Texas Instruments OMAP35X and the other based on an ARM Cortex A8.

These are very small and very inexpensive machines ($149 for the former and $179 for the latter.) The top-end board has a chip that runs at 1 GHz and that has 512 MB of main memory in addition to 256 MB of flash embedded on the board.

"There are a lot of people dabbling with these ARM chips," says Prince. Dell, in fact, is waiting to get its hands on some of the multicore Cortex-A9 MPCore chips, which will scale up to four cores on a single chip. "For a technology perspective, I am pretty bullish that there is an opportunity for a lot of use cases in servers starting with the A9 chips."

By the way, the ARM Cortex-A8 chips, which range in speed from 600 MHz to 1 GHz or higher, don't have error correction on their memory controllers and are therefore not perfectly suited to enterprise jobs; but if the platform is a cluster that has data protection and failover built into a cluster, then this doesn’t matter quite so much. (If they get a memory error, you reboot them. No big D so long as you have load balancers dishing out work to your cluster nodes.) The Cortex-A9 and Cortex-A15 chips do have ECC scrubbing on their memories, which makes them more suitable for servers.

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Next page: Chip Marvell

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