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Canonical ARMs Ubuntu for microserver wars

Oneiric Ocelot runs un-x86

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Canonical is suiting up for the coming microserver wars, confirming that Ubuntu Server 11.10 will run on ARM chips.

Just under three years ago when ARM-based netbooks were taking the PC market by storm and iPad tablets were just a gleam in Steve Job's eye, Canonical, the commercial sponsor of the Ubuntu Linux distro, made ARM processors full peers with x64 processors running its Ubuntu Desktop variant. And now, perhaps at the dawn of an ARM-based server era that will see the x64 architecture get some tough competition for the first time in a decade, Canonical is getting out on the bleeding edge by supporting Ubuntu Server on ARM-based servers.

Chris Kenyon, vice president of OEM services at Canonical, has confirmed in a blog post that the upcoming "Oneiric Ocelot" Ubuntu 11.10 due in October would include a server variant that would boot on ARM-based machines. ARM support will not be an afterthought, but come out simultaneously for machines as well as x86 and x64 servers and support server-class chipsets and peripherals.

This is not just some kind of one-off effort and publicity stunt – like Canonical's support for the former Sun Microsystems' Sparc T1 multicore chips from a few years back. Kenyon says the ARM architecture will also be part of the long-term support (LTS) Ubuntu Server due with version 12.04 and of future releases.

The initial focus for Ubuntu Server will be on microservers, a broad category of machines that offer better performance per watt than standard or even low-volt Xeon and Opteron parts can deliver running distributed server workloads.

"We are very excited about this area," says Kenyon in a video snippet on the blog. "We are convinced that we will see ARM and frankly x86 processors in here. There's some really interesting collaboration between SeaMicro and Intel going on here and between Calxeda and ARM. And we are already seeing some big Wen 2.0 properties experiment with this type of computing. It's a very interesting area and one that we see Ubuntu Server being a part of."

Hopefully, for the sake of competition, the ARM-based server racket will do better than netbooks over the long haul. The tablet and cheap PCs came along just in time to make them irrelevant.

Microservers will probably be a niche market, accounting for around 10 per cent of shipments, according to Intel. But given that hyperscale data centers will be buying scads of these small, power-efficient, multicore and often multi-node machines, Intel is not about to cede this market to ARM and if fighting back with low-powered Xeons aimed at single-socket nodes and low-powered Atoms with server features like ECC memory and virtualization support.

Intel's market to lose

Calxeda, which has been cooking up its own quad-core ARM processors and a fabric interconnect for server nodes, says it can cram 120 server nodes into a 2U rack-mounted chassis. The Calxeda machines will be based on the 32-bit Cotrex-A9 processor design from ARM Holdings, and it will have a DDR3 memory controller with ECC scrubbing added to them.

The company says it can deliver a server node consisting of a quad-core chip with the memory controller and the interconnect electronics plus one 4GB memory stick for under 5 watts of juice consumed.

Calxeda is not planning on making servers, but selling the chips to server makers. And it looks like Ubuntu Server will be one of the first – if not the first – operating systems running on the box when it ships next year. Calxeda is planning to ship chip samples and reference servers to partners before the end of the year.

Whitebox server maker ZT Systems, like Calxeda, couldn't wait for the Cortex-A15 design to settle down and last November launched an ARM server packing eight STMicroelectronics' Spear1310 processor nodes into a 1U rack-mounted chassis.

SeaMicro has a microserver called the SM1000-64HD that currently jam 384 of Intel's Atom N570 processors and a proprietary load balancer and torus interconnect into 10U chassis. The company is currently enthusiastic about the Atom roadmap, but has made it clear since it came out of stealth mode last June that it was not married to any particular processor. Expect an ARM-based version at some point if the performance per watt of the Atom chip doesn't keep pace.

While Microsoft has said that it is porting Windows 8 to the ARM architecture, thus far it has not agreed to port Windows Server and its related systems programs – SQL Server, Exchange Server, and so on – to ARM chips. And unless Microsoft thinks it will lose money by not doing such a port, it is unlikely that Microsoft will put a lot of work in.

At this point, the move toward microservers from plain-vanilla two-socket rack servers could end up being a Linux-only phenomenon, given the hyperscale data center operators that are most interested in these tiny machines. ®

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