ARM server hero Calxeda lines up software super friends

Preparing to battle The Atom

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With Intel's top brass bad-mouthing ARM-based servers, upstart server chip maker Calxeda can't let Intel do all the talking. It has to put together an ecosystem of hardware and software partners who believe there's a place for a low-power, 32-bit ARM-based server platform in the data center.

To that end, Calxeda, formerly known as Smooth-Stone, is launching the "trailblazer initiative" - a team of 10 software companies that will support upcoming servers based on Calxeda's impending ARM-based system-on-chip (SoC) designs

The Calxeda ARM super friends include Autonomic Resources, Canonical, Caringo, Couchbase, Datastax, Eucalyptus Systems, Gluster, Momentum SI, Opscode, and Pervasive.

Canonical is of course, the commercial sponsor of the Ubuntu distribution of Linux, which is now first in line as the server operating system of choice for Calxeda ARM-based servers.

Eucalyptus Systems provides a cloud framework that clones the API stack and operations of Amazon's EC2 cloud. Canonical was a big champion of Eucalyptus but has now thrown its weight behind the OpenStack cloud framework for compute and storage clouds created initially by NASA and Rackspace Hosting and now the darling of the open source community.

If Windows happens, great

Microsoft is not one of the trailblazing software partners for Calxeda, but it would be interesting if it were. Karl Freund, the vice president of marketing at Calxeda, tells El Reg that the chip maker is building its business plan around Linux. "Microsoft has not made any announcements about Windows Server on ARM," Freund warns. "If Windows happens, great. That's all upside for us and we'll love it if it happens."

Opscode is used to automate cloud operations, and Autonomic Resources is a cloud computing provider to the US government, and Caringo and Gluster do cloudy and clustered storage. Couchbase provides a NoSQL database called Membase Server, and Datastax rides the Hadoop big data chewer atop the Cassandra distributed database with the Hive query language.

Pervasive has commercialized the PostgreSQL database in the past and now sells a database based on Btrieve called PSQL and a line of data integration and analytics products called DataRush. Momentum SI sells a set of tools to do load balancing and auto-scaling on private clouds based on VMware's vCloud Director or the Eucalyptus framework.

Karl Freund

Freund: Cloud and big data

"The biggest opportunity for us in is cloud and big data," says Freund. "And now, when someone says, 'Forget ARM servers', we can say take a look at these companies. They think there is a latent market for ARM servers, and based on the ARM skillsets out there, that this is going to be easy."

The Calxeda ARM chips are based on a modified Cortex-A9 design from ARM Holdings and have not been given a name yet.

But in March, the company started talking about the characteristics of its future processors just as Intel began to talk about Xeon-based micro servers and SeaMicro was showing off its 64-bit Atom-based ultra-dense server chassis. The latter packs 512 cores in a 10U space, complete with load balancing and networking electronics linking the 256 server nodes (on 32 server boards) together.

In its attempt to performance per watt that is second to none, Calxeda has taken the Cortex-A9 core, which is only available with 32-bit memory addressing, and packed it up in a four-core variant. This has an integrated DDR3 memory controller, with ECC scrubbing, and a homegrown interconnection fabric to link nodes together.

With a 4GB memory stick, the memory controller, and the interconnect, Calxeda says it can deliver a complete server node in a thermal envelope of under 5 watts. It is our guess that the Calxeda chips will run at somewhere between 1GHz to 2GHz, but Calxeda has not said what its target clock speed is yet.

'Multiple thousands of cores'

We do know that Calxeda is designing the interconnect to link "multiple thousands of cores" together, albeit not in a cache-coherent manner but more link what you do with a rack of servers or multiple racks of servers in a cluster or cloud. The initial reference architecture machines pack 120 server nodes (that's 480 cores) in a 2U chassis.

The Calxeda super friends will get early access to hardware, which should be in their hands by the end of the year. End-user trailblazers will also get machines at this time.

Calxeda has not said exactly when its chips will be ready for distribution for commercial use, or who will make systems based on its ARM SoCs. But Freund says that each partner that commits to building systems will have a handful of real customers putting the machines through the paces on a beta test by the end of this year.

'We're not putting our tail between our legs and running away after what Intel has said'

Calxeda is not worried about Intel's plans to get 20 watt and 15 watt "Sandy Bridge" Xeon processors into the field this year and a Xeon that consumes less than 10 watts out in 2012. That's the wattage for the processor alone, mind you.

Given the nature of many cloud and big data workloads, having to break the workload up and have it spread across many wimpy nodes is not, according to Calxeda and contrary to what Google would have us all believe, always a bad idea.

In fact, Freund throws down the gauntlet and says that terabyte for terabyte on Hadoop workloads, a cluster of machines using a sufficient number Calxeda processors will offer a five to one power efficiency advantage over a Xeon-based cluster.

"We're not putting our tail between our legs and running away after what Intel has said," Freund says with a laugh. "The good news is that customers are going to have a choice, and in those places areas where they want to optimize for power efficiency rather than 64-bit memory, we expect to maintain a significant advantage."

You can see now why Intel tore up its Atom processor roadmap in May and rejiggered it to get lower-powered Atom processors, ranging from under 1 watt to under 10 watts. It ain't just about notebooks. The more aggressive Atom roadmap is also necessary to combat ARM-based servers – no matter how much Intel would try to convince us otherwise. ®

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