ARM arrives on servers with Calxeda's Ubuntu demo

By demonstrating Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin running on an ARM-based server, Calxeda has taken an important step in bringing the low-power RISC-architecture chips to the server market

Calxeda has shown off a low-power ARM-based server running Ubuntu 12.04, a significant move that ratchets up competition in the chip industry.

Calxeda ARM server

Calxeda has demonstrated Ubuntu 12.04 LTS Precise Pangolin running on an ARM-based server. Image credit: Calxeda

The Texas-based server designer demonstrated the technology at the Ubuntu Developer and Cloud Summit in Oakland, California on Monday. It used Ubuntu 12.04 — the most recent long-term support version of the Linux distribution, also known as Precise Pangolin — to run a LAMP stack, along with node.js and Ruby-on-Rails, off a server made of prototype ARM-based EnergyCard compute blades.

"This is a significant milestone for many reasons," Forrester analyst Richard Fichera wrote in a blog post. "It proves that Calxeda can indeed deliver a working server based on its scalable fabric architecture... It also establishes that at least one Linux distribution provider, in this case Ubuntu, is willing to provide a real supported distribution."

Calxeda introduced its EnergyCard four-node reference blade servers in November, when it revealed it was joining forces with HP to bring its ARM-based EnergyCore chips to the server market. Monday marked the first public demonstration of server hardware built on the technology.

With a thermal design power (TDP) of 20W across the four processors in the EnergyCard, the EnergyCore chips consume much less electricity than similar ones from Intel, according to Calxeda. This means they are cheaper to run, it argues.

Fichera said he expects server Linux distributions CentOS and Red Hat will support the technology soon. In addition, Calxeda believes that within the next three years or so, 40 percent of the Linux server market could be served by ARM chips, the company's head of marketing Karl Freund told ZDNet UK.

A common criticism levelled at proponents of ARM-based servers is that x86 applications need to be rewritten for the RISC architecture, but Calxeda says this is not the case for the majority of web applications.

"The development toolset for ARM is already robust, thanks to the embedded and mobile markets," Freund said. "Most apps can be developed on one [processor architecture] and will run on the other without change, if you are talking about most web app infrastructure (Java, PHP, Python, etc)."

Intel competition

However, the power benefits of the ARM chips could dim as Intel's advances in silicon process design, via its 22nm low-power tri-gate method and a forthcoming 14nm process, close the power gap between the two architectures.

"Intel already has a two-process node lead," Freund said, noting that Calxeda is on 40nm. "Perhaps they even maintain that lead. But the comparisons we see today would remain about the same. We move forward one, they move forward one, and the advantage we have will hold."

The demonstration marks an important step in the development of ARM-based servers, but the proof will be in the figures that come from testing the EnergyCard servers, Fichera noted.

"It's not a slam-dunk guaranteed win," he said. "But this kind of competition is what drives the technology business, and the outcome of this skirmish will in the end benefit anyone who needs a server in the coming years with increased options and continued pressure on incumbents to do better."

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