ARM vs Intel: The fight for the datacentre hots up

Summary:ARM and Intel go head to head over the processors at the heart the datacentre, but can mobile chips really prevail against their established rivals?

There's little doubt that the nature of servers is undergoing a fundamental change. As Jack Clark points out , big web content providers, such as Google, Facebook and Amazon, may be considering switching processors. Or at least, that's what ARM would like them to do.

ARM — originally the Acorn RISC Machine — is a rare success story in the processor business whose time has arguably arrived, courtesy of the huge and ramping demand for low-powered CPUs to drive battery-hampered mobile devices.

The future of mobile chips is interesting, but it's their role in lowering energy usage that could have the biggest impact on most people

It's hoping its chips, whose design it licenses out, will become the basis of tomorrow's servers, driven by the increasing imperative to cut the costs of powering and cooling the datacentre.

It's not going to be all plain sailing, though. As an article in Wired about Intel and the decline of Dell, HP and IBM in servers points out, Google et al are showing little sign of switching from the x86 architecture. To do so would be tantamount to throwing away millions of years of developer effort to code for a new hardware platform.

Instead, they're taking a new route. Rather than buying servers from Dell, HP and IBM, whose combined market share of the server business has been dropping, they're building their own.

So far so unsurprising. We've known for years that Google takes this approach. What is interesting is that Intel has confirmed that eight server makers now vie for a share of the same pie — 75 percent of the server market in 2008 — that was previously sewn up tight by the big three.

Server builders and customised machines

More interesting still is that Google is not alone. Many server builders are making customised machines for the likes of Facebook, something Intel obviously knows since it's selling CPUs to Google — the only web company to buy direct, according to Wired — and to the smaller server builders.

They are making systems that include such features as a Facebook-designed friction hinge, making server maintenance quicker and easier.

And all include Intel processors, which Intel reckons can get close to the kinds of power usage that ARM offers — just 15W — but without the humongous hassle of changing platforms.

Market share figures in this area are a bit speculative, since Intel doesn't reveal its sales figures, and market research companies such as IDC — the main data source — cannot or find it harder to count private sales to Facebook et al.

The future of mobile processors is interesting, but it's their role in lowering energy usage that could have the biggest impact on most people, whether or not they know it.

For a discussion of how this issue might play out, including a discussion of AMD's potential role, take a look at Jack Clark's piece Intel draws battle lines.

Topics: Processors, Data Centers, Mobility

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Editor, journalist, analyst, presenter and blogger. As well as blogging and writing news & features here on ZDNet, I work as a cloud analyst with STL Partners, and write for a number of other news and feature sites. I also provide research and analysis services, video and audio production, white papers, event photography, voiceo... Full Bio

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