ARMs Racing Toward the Cloud

Arthur Cole

Is the ARM processor about to make a run on the cloud, potentially knocking Intel off its perch as the CPU of choice for enterprise infrastructure.

Speculation is rampant that this is the way the industry is shaping up as enterprises look to the cloud for new levels of data performance and operational efficiency. The ARM already has a lock on the vast majority of mobile devices, which are supplanting the PC as the preferred client device, and now it seems designers are eager to add ARM-based data center infrastructure to the mix as well.

At the recent OSCON event in Oregon, leading backers of the OpenStack cloud platform community took the wraps off of TryStack, an open-source sandbox aimed at fostering cloud applications for both x86 and ARM servers. The ostensible goal is to foster interoperability between the two technologies that may ultimately lead to the development of integrated compute clusters to power advanced cloud environments. Chief backers of the project include HP and Dell, which have both committed to ARMs for a new generation of low-power servers, as well as Caldexa, which licenses ARM technology from ARM Holdings.

All this talk of cooperation with Intel is heart-warming, but TryStack can also serve another purpose, according to The Register's Timothy Prickett Morgan: head-to-head comparisons between ARMs and x86s. HP is likely contributing the x86 iron, while the ARM portion is hosted by Texas-based server provider CoreNAP using Caldexa ECX-1000 chips. Gaining experience with OpenStack is certainly a worthy goal, but how many organizations will resist the temptation to see how ARMs stack up against the latest Xeons using their own benchmarks?

Texas Instruments is also looking at advanced ARM architectures for cloud applications. The company has traditionally marketed its Keystone II SoC, built around the ARM Cortex A15 design, as a server co-processor and cellular base station solution. Lately, however, the company has been talking about additional uses, such as network switching, packet processing and media acceleration, with specialized functionality for big data analytics and cloud services. As a co-processor, the Keystone II doesn't pose a direct threat to x86, although with the rest of the industry looking at ARMs as the new CPU, TI might not be able to hold off for very long.

Intel itself is not blind to the changes in the processor industry. The company has already de-emphasized the march toward ever-more-powerful, single-thread processing capabilities as top data firms like Facebook and Amazon look toward lower-power solutions that better match the need for high-volume, low-complexity computing tasks. To counter the ARM, the company is designing a range of Atom processors extending down to a 22 nm processor with power draws as low as 9 watts.

As far as industry shake-ups go, this is about as important as they come. The winning design stands to rule the professional computing sphere for the next several decades at least, wielding tremendous influence on the scope and direction of data infrastructure development into the cloud and beyond.

It's not often that the stakes become so high in an industry rivalry. This one bears watching.



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