Ask anyone in the IT industry which processor owns the server market and you'll get the same answer: x86.
Sure, some RISC machines are still out there, but they're usually in the high-end specialty shops or massive installations in top research labs or telecommunications centers. Commodity servers dominate the enterprise and x86 dominates the commodity server.
But maybe not for much longer. New breeds of lower-power processors are starting to make a run at the data center, propelled by the industry's relentless pursuit of energy efficiency. And the twin irony here is that many of these processors are already firmly in control of the consumer mobile gadget industry, which itself is starting to prove its worth in information-centric business applications.
A prime example of this trend is ARM. Advanced RISC Machines came on the scene in the early 1990s and quickly grew into the main silicon supplier for just about all the mobile phones in existence today. Earlier this month, the company released a new dual-core device called the Cortex-A15 MPCore, a 2.5 GHz version of the wildly popular Cortex-A9. The chip offers at a least a five-fold performance boost over rival processors and runs on an exceptionally low-power window compared to even the latest generation of x86 designs. But what has server manufacturers really interested is its support for hardware-based virtualization, which means it should fit comfortably in most virtualized enterprise environments. Plus, you'll have the added benefit of extending a single virtual environment to an army of mobile devices through technologies like VirtualLogix' VLX hypervisor.
In fact, interest in ARM got a shot in the arm this week when Oracle's Larry Ellison dropped the bomb that the company is looking to purchase a chip company to supplement its hardware holdings gained from the former Sun Microsystems. Analysts argue that a takeover of ARM or a similar firm would let Oracle get in on the ground floor of what is likely to shape up as the next generation of server technology.
Apple is also stepping up to the plate with the A4 processor, itself powered by a 1 GHz ARM and currently deployed in the new iPhone and Apple TV device. Again, speculation holds that it could find its way into low-power servers or even future Macs. A prime candidate, in fact, would be a media server, which generally require less power than standard data servers and could supplement Apple's strengths in graphics/video technology.
And it's not like x86 is being cut out of the picture entirely. Both the Intel Atom and the AMD Bobcat, initially intended to run in notebook/netbook circles, are already making inroads into the server side of the house. Meanwhile, a company called VIA is said to be close to releasing a quad-core Nano processor complete with 2 MB of L2 cache and support for DirectX 11, which would certainly draw some fire away from both Bobcat and Atom.
More than likely, the new generations of low-power servers will target specific applications, such as cloud services, so it's not like commodity x86s are headed for the digital graveyard just yet. But it does mean that the one-size-fits-all approach to data processing is at an end, and so is the long-running dominance that x86 has enjoyed for the past two decades.