Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

Summary: Would you believe that ARM processors, those little chips that power so many smartphones and tablets, have a future on servers? Ubuntu does.


In today's data center, millions of instructions per second (MIPS) and gigabyte per second (GBPS) throughput are well and good, but being green (having a low power consumption) is becoming just as important. That's why Canonical, the company behind Ubuntu Linux, is betting that in the long run, ARM processors will play an important role in tomorrow's servers and datacenters.

Ubuntu Linux doesn't play a big role in the x86 business server space. For Linux, Red Hat takes those honors. So, after four years of working with ARM, Canonical is trying to win a new server market for itself by helping create the ARM business server space.

Here's how Canonical plans on making this work. In October 2011, the Ubuntu Server 11.10 release will be released simultaneously for x86, x86-64 and ARM-based architectures. The base image of the releases will be the same across architectures with a common kernel baseline. The ARM architecture will also be part of the long-term support (LTS) version of Ubuntu Server in 12.04 and other future releases.

Canonical's initial development focus and optimization will be around the most popular Ubuntu workloads of web/network infrastructure and distributed data processing via NoSQL or big data applications where workloads typically use hundreds or thousands of systems. Then, starting in 2012, Canonical hopes to become the operating system of choice for this new server architecture.

The company doesn't expect businesses to move immediately to ARM. This is a long-term move. At LinuxCon in Vancouver, British Columbia, Chris Kenyon, Canonical's VP of original equipment manufacturer (OEM) services, told me that “ARM on a server is a journey. It will be several years before it goes mainstream.”

Canonical is convinced, though, that ARM on servers will eventually become popular though. Kenyon explained, “ARM's fundamentals are quite sound with its multi-core, multi-GHz processors. If you look at certain work loads, the ability to splice CPUs and memory will give you huge I/O, which makes it ideal for some database work.”

As for power management, besides simply using comparatively little power, ARM makes it easy to idle down nodes and cores. The end result? Datacenter administrators using ARM servers will be able to save power, and thus money, over their x86 rivals.

That said, Kenyon is the first to admit that Linux on ARM for servers still has major issues to address. According to Kenyon, virtualization and 64-bit support both need much work before ARM is server-ready. So Canonical is working on those and other issues, such as looking for common work loads that will work well on the ARM architecture.

Does this sound interesting? Want to get involved? Ubuntu and friends will be happy to have your help. You can find project information on the Ubuntu ARM Server wiki. If you want a more formal partnership, hardware partners, independent software vendors (ISVs) and open-source application developers can contact Canonical via the company's partner inquiry form.

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Topics: Processors, Hardware, Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems, Servers, Software

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  • From a cost reduction point of view

    one would think IaaS providers would be interested in this.
    I believe at one point Amazon Engineers were considering ARM. Don't know where that led.
    Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
    • Amazon ARM = nowhere

      64-bit is, how shall we put it... "non-existant" in ARM systems today.

      Virtualization is also a joke.

      Both of these equate to an absolute non-presence of ARM in any datacenter.

      Just like that rumour of Facebook using Atom's for clusters.
      • Only fools are positive. Forrester analysis would indicate otherwise



        Dietrich T. Schmitz *Your
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

        @DTS: Your link refers to the manufacturing process, not processor architecture.

        Despite the rumor mill around the end of 2010, ARM has yet to detail their plans for their 64-bit ISA. ARM's virtualization infrastructure also requires some improvement in order to support server operating systems.

        I am certain they're working on both these issues, but for now, the Cortex-A15 (ARM's latest architecture) is still 32-bit only and has limited virtualization support.
      • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

        While arm isn't ready for a data center environment I would like an ARM setup for an my <a href="http://addto.it/Windows-7-Home-Theater-PC-(HTPC)">HTPC</a> or for a home server. Even an arm laptop would be pretty nice, there are a lot of places where a power efficient processor would be great. Although I do agree strongly that they need to hurry up and get to a 64 bit architecture, 4GB of ram is beginning to be the entry level of ram and 8GB is the sweet spot.
  • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

    Canonical is sounding desperate to get their OS on anything possible. Now with Microsoft making Windows 8 available for the ARM platform linux doesn't stand a chance.
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

      @LoverockDavidson_ haha thanks for the laugh of the day! Windows on ARM is a joke, Windows users will be expecting all their apps to work on Win8 ARM which they won't. Win8 ARM will probably still be based on crappy WinCE. Linux already has a massive head start on ARM, Debian has been available on ARM for years
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

      Windows on ARM will fail as everyone will just flock to the x86/64 versions.
      Nathan A Smith
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

      @LoverockDavidson_ nice try. But Linux has run on ARM for long. With the whole set of tools. Debian have had suport for ARM since 2003: From Wikipedia, about Debian.
      2.2 potato 15 August 2000 6 ? 3,900 2003-04 New architectures: arm, powerpc

      And Debian/Linux had working support for 64-bit Intel long before Microsoft.
  • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

    Steven and Paula, I know how excited you are about Ubuntu (maybe popular, but not the best Linux distribution, in my view) but don't get too excited about what's actually happening and it is likety to happen. I agree with Joe_Raby.
  • What about desktop on tablets?

    will this research lead to having an ARM version of desktop Ubuntu for tablets?
    • there already is

      @pfyearwood there already is a desktop version of ubuntu for the ARM architecture, and it has been released on several production tablets. they also have ubuntu for PowerPC, such is the convenience of being debian based. what they are working on specifically is the arm architecture server version, because arm has historically been not very useful in the server market. however, with the new dual core cortex A9 chips, i believe a dev board such as the pandaboard or similar, could make a nice low power (and silent!) web server or FTP server (similar to the Pogoplug in concept, but more powerful). i aim to do something similar in the coming months, more to play around with the hardware than anything.
  • Some are missing the point

    Remember, virtualization and 64bit address space didn't even exist in the server room only a few short years ago. The main benefit of virtualization is that multiple software stacks can timeslice on existing hardware that is already consuming 10x the power of arm systems. One calculation I heard about arm server is that it would take ~14,000 arm cores to consume the same power as one rack of Xeon processors. The advantage here is instead of a VM, you just run on raw hardware. When you power down a system in this configuration, you literally power down the system, thus saving energy. A VM host doesn't give you that capability.

    The other advantage of virtualization is space, but if a 4U rack case can hold 21 dual core ARM systems, each with it's own drive, this also becomes somewhat moot. If the system had been setup with iSCSI or ATA-over-ethernet, then more cores can easily be added to the same chasis.

    The biggest advantage for 64 bit is in the database world. Web servers, file servers, media servers, etc, really don't benefit from 64 bit that much (outside of the immediate compiler optimizations over i686 compatibility that most 32 bit OS's are running).
    • You're incorrect


      All servers can benefit from increased memory usage, especially with multiple connections, and multimedia workloads. 32-bit only supports 4GB of addressable memory space. When you're working with multimedia workloads over the web, you might be streaming and/or recompressing videos for many users, or such, and 4GB is literally next to nothing for memory for a server of that usage scenario.

      Also, your assessment of power management facilities of modern hypervisors is likewise incorrect.
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

      Excellent points. While it will obviously be nice to have virtualization and 64-bit versions (which would allow for greater memory capacity, if nothing else), such features aren't necessarily requirements on everyone's shopping list.
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

      @GrueMaster - note that the very latest ARM Cortex-A15 dual core chip delivers around 7 instructions per clock cycle. A Core-i7 Extreme 990 chip delivers around 46 instructions per cycle @.

      Of course, Intel's chips are going to consume a lot more power than a mobile A15, but they deliver A LOT more computing horsepower. It will be interesting to see what kinds of ARM chip make it onto server boards - I am certain that ARM based servers will use chips that aren't quite as ruthlessly power conservative as their mobile counterparts, but are likely to be a lot more frugal than Intel's high-end server chips.

      What impact Intel's future architectures and manufacturing capabilities will have on this front, we'll have to wait and see.

      Oh ... and FWIW, advanced OS and virtualization platforms agressively consolidate logical threads onto available physical threads and can end up shutting down several cores and even entire processors if the machine is under light load, dynamically switching those cores and processors on as needed. This can result in considerable power savings.

      ARM has some way to go to compete
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

      "Remember, virtualization and 64bit address space didn't even exist in the server room only a few short years ago. "

      Virtualization existed on mainframes eons ago, for the 64-bit, let others address that.
    • yes, incorrect


      VMS, an excellent OS that far exceeds what Linux will EVER be able to do, and it has been doing it for YEARS and YEARS and years.

      VMS can do things routinely that Linux fanbois could only dream of happing with their 'toy' OS.
    • RE: Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

      @GrueMaster virtualization and 64 bit address space has been in server rooms long before Intel or AMD even thought about 64 bit.
      IBM has done virtualization since the mid and end -60. Intel had something you could do virtualization on in 1985.

      64-bit architecures was mid -70 (Cray computers), 2003 it came to AMD, Intel and with PowerPC.

      Look up "Timeline of virtualization development" and "64 bit" in Wikipedia.

      So yes, it was a LONG time ago.
  • Windows has a better solution on ARM

    When Microsoft brings to market a Windows 8 optimized version of Windows Home Server on ARM it will be a more powerful solution that resonates with markets looking solutions that solve real problems in a more simplified and targeted way. Sorry, but trying do Enterprise work with Ubuntu on ARM now is like using a ladies shoe heel at a construction site. Windows Server is more appropriate for heavy work loads or even lighter jobs. Ubuntu is only cut out or hobbyist non-sense adventures.