ARM dips toe into server chip design

The processor architecture firm has several trials underway for testing ARM-based server chips, but it warns any commercial release will be years away
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

ARM is running one of its websites on a cluster of ARM-based chips, part of a handful of experiments to test out the viability of using its chip architecture in servers.

The Cambridge-based company does not market designs for server processors, concentrating its efforts instead on chips for the mobile phone market — where it dominates — and on early forays into smartbooks and tablets. However, ARM is working on low-powered server chips in response to customer demand, marketing chief Ian Drew told ZDNet UK.

"We've been doing some testing over the past year or so," Drew said on Tuesday. "People talk to us about energy efficiency in a number of different areas, from microcontrollers all the way through to servers. We've been talking to a few semiconductor partners and a number of [manufacturers] in the last couple of years on this."

According to Drew, the website for the ARM Linux Internet Platform is "running on a Marvell-based very small cluster of chips".

"We switched it in about six months ago — it's going OK," Drew said. "It's one of these things where you don't know what you don't know until you try it."

The trial is giving ARM an idea of the performance, power management and cooling implications of running a website off the company's low-powered architecture, Drew added. He noted that "a lot more" had to be done on creating a LAMP (Linux Apache MySql Perl/PHP/Python) open-source software stack for the architecture.

There are another "two or three" trials underway using ARM-based servers, Drew added, but he declined to give any more details.

Asked whether ARM would definitely go into competition with the likes of x86 and Sparc in the server chip design game, Drew said the company is "not at that stage yet".

Drew was cautious about saying whether the company would enter the server market, noting that it had seen delays in releasing ARM-based smartbooks.

"I don't want to set false hopes for [ARM-based] home servers in WalMart in the next year," he said. "We're an [intellectual property] company — we learned in last two years that we don't know everything about everything.

"On the servers, it will take longer than we imagine because it's a much more complex problem [than smartbooks or phones]. Servers tend to be the secure element in the system — people save their important data there. I could lose my phone, but if I lose my server farm it has an exponential hit on my business. This will take multiple years to get to some form of reality."

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