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Cheeky Boston fires up x86-to-ARM porting cloud for server apps

Chuckles about 'ARM as a service' and AaaS all around

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If you are a developer and you want to get a jump on the ARM server wave and port your applications from an x86 processor or another chip architecture – hey, the latter could happen – getting your hands on some of the nifty new server iron can be problematic. An ARM server is not exactly a volume product, and neither are operating systems that run on them. But cheeky UK server maker Boston Limited has a solution to the programmer problem, and it is called the ARM as a service, or AaaS, cloud.

Tom Fry, business development manager at Boston, which launched its Viridis ARM server last June, tells El Reg that the company is not interested in being in the hosting business – so don't get the wrong idea.

But Boston does want to offer assistance to software developers who don't have access to the latest servers based on Calxeda's ECX-1000 ARM processors and fabric interconnect, by helping them port their applications to this particular server architecture and thereby help the ARM community – and perhaps itself – to some future server sales.

Dell fluffed up a cloudy ARM and x86 service called TryStack.org last July to allow companies to take the OpenStack cloud controller out for a spin on both Calxeda EXC-1000 server nodes and on a separate set of Opteron nodes.

The idea of TryStack was to give people a chance to see that OpenStack works on top of ARM-based servers, and also to compare OpenStack clouds across the ARM and x86 architectures.

The x86 machine was based on four server nodes, each with two six-core Opteron 4100s and 96GB of main memory; these server nodes were linked by two Catalyst 4948 top-of-rack switches from Cisco Systems and shared 5TB of disk. On the ARM side, the configuration of the machine was never revealed, but it had multiple EnergyCard quad-socket system boards and used the Fleet Services distributed Layer 2 interconnect to link nodes on multiple cards to each other as well as within the card in a flat Ethernet network. Presumably it had one SATA drive and one 4GB memory stick for each core on each socket in the box, as the EnergyCard was designed to accommodate.

The TryStack setup was meant for testing software, not for the more time-consuming process of actually porting it. And the Boston ARM-as-a-service is absolutely designed for the task, and more importantly, does not have any kind of time limit during which you work on your code. You might only have a few hours to play around on the TryStack machines, once given access, but Boston is selling slices in one-week chunks (and longer if necessary) on ARM server service.

For the moment, Boston is making its AaaS out of two Viridis machines, with one cheek being larger than the other.

Boston Viridis server rear view

Rear view of Boston Limited's Viridis ARM server

Specifically, Boston has taken one of the 2U Viridis servers shown above, which has a dozen Calxeda EnergyCards with a total of 48 processors and 192 cores in a 2U chassis and two dozen disk drives, and exposed it to the tender mercies of the internet. The other machine is a variant of the same basic processing elements but in a 4U chassis that can hold either 36 3.5-inch or 72 2.5-inch drives. In this case of the right cheek of the AaaS, the Viridis server has 36 disks for a total of 144TB of capacity using 4TB drives.

With the disk-heavy setup, Boston can target jobs such as Hadoop data munching, and cram 1.44PB of disk capacity across 360 spindles and 1,920 ARM cores across 480 sockets in a single rack.

According to Fry, Boston will sell capacity on the AaaS in three different ways. If you are self-sufficient and you just want a Linux setup, then you can rent a single socket with one disk drive allocated to it for $30 per week. This node will be set up with Canonical's Ubuntu Server 12.10 by default, but you can also have it configured with Ubuntu Server 12.04 or Red Hat's Fedora 17.

If you want access to the Breeze application porting and tracing tool from Ellexus, Boston will load up a light version of Breeze on your Calxeda socket for an extra $8 per node per week. This light version of Breeze is only available through the AaaS. (Insert breaking-wind joke here.)

If you want the full-on Breeze tool – perhaps one could refer to it as A Mighty Wind? – and you want to work on code ports across multiple server nodes, then you can license all of Breeze for $200 per week for up to four nodes and for $260 per week for four nodes or more. This more expensive price includes training and professional services on how to use the Breeze porting tool.

"We are not trying to make a make a huge sum of money," Fry says, "but we are interested in getting developers to play with the ARM architecture and then get some server business on the back end."

Cue eyebrow raise... ®

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