Calxeda and HP unleash ARM server tech

The EnergyCore ARM-based server processor — start-up Calxeda's attempt to get ARM's low-powered chips into enterprise servers — will appear in a server from HP
Written by Jack Clark, Contributor

ARM-backed start-up Calxeda has continued the Cambridge chip designer's push into servers with the introduction of its EnergyCore system-on-a-chip, which HP is backing by teaming up with Calxeda to produce a server powered by the technology.

Calxeda EnergyCore chip

The EnergyCore ARM-based server processor from Calxeda will appear in a server from HP. Image credit: Calxeda

The move, ARM's first overt attempt to break into servers, was announced on Tuesday. Marvell and other companies have developed ARM-based server chips, and ARM is known to have run a server internally, but this is the first time that one of the world's largest server makers has said it will make hardware based on the processor technology.

"We saw all the stars aligning years ago — web 2.0 data-driven businesses, cloud computing, open-source technologies, energy capacity at crisis levels," Barry Evans, chief executive of Calxeda, said in a statement. "We knew the era of thousands of archaic servers filling enormous datacentres was coming to an end, and today we make public the foundational architecture for this new era of scale-out server infrastructure."

The first major partner to come out in support of the chips is HP, which is building an evaluation server for the technology. The HP Redstone Server Development Platform will initially be used by HP for testing, developing and benchmarking hyperscale applications, the partners said.

EnergyCore chip

Each EnergyCore chip has an 80Gb fabric switch, 4MB of error-correction code L2 cache, and software to optimise power management. It also has what ZDNet UK understands to be a quad-core Cortex-A9 MPCore chip that runs at between 1.1 and 1.4GHz, depending on configuration.

The entire chip has a thermal design power of 5W, according to Calxeda. By comparison, Intel's Xeon E3 series of server processors has between 20W and 95W — with an average of 80W — and AMD's Opteron 6000 family of processors has between 85W and 115W.

However, unlike mobile phones, where ARM's Risc-based low-power chips have seen great success, the market for servers is dominated by x86-based chips from companies such as Intel and AMD. According to IDC's report in August on worldwide server revenue, the money made by all server vendors totalled $13.2bn (£9.7bn), with x86-based servers contributing $8.4bn of that. The remaining money was largely made by Unix servers and IBM System z platforms, with Risc-based ARM chips not receiving a single mention.

Austin, Texas-based Calxeda, formerly known as Smooth-Stone, was formed in 2008. In 2010, it received a cash infusion of $48m (£30m) from ARM and a group of venture capitalists. At the time of writing, ARM was not able to tell ZDNet UK how much of the funding was contributed by ARM and how much by other investors. An ARM representative sits on the board of the company.

Today marks the beginning of a new way of thinking about what is possible in data and analytics.
– Mark Shuttleworth

Calxeda feels it can break into enterprise servers thanks to ARM chips' thrifty power consumption — a sentiment echoed by its partners such as HP, ARM and Ubuntu-backer Canonical, which was identified by Calxeda as a "key partner" for the launch.

"The fundamental constraint in the world of massively parallel approaches to data management and analytics is power," Mark Shuttleworth, founder of Canonical, said in a Calxeda statement. "Today marks the beginning of a new way of thinking about what is possible in data and analytics."

ARM is in the process of developing a new architecture that will allow the production of 64-bit chips — a must for very large web applications and databases — so Calxeda's announcement is likely to be followed by others.

Energy efficient

According to Calxeda, its EnergyCore chip is around a third as powerful in computational terms as Intel's chips on average. Because the chip consumes around a tenth as much power as Intel or AMD processors, the company expects an ARM-based Calxeda server to come in at about half the price of an x86 machine, in terms of total cost of ownership.

Because EnergyCore is Risc-based, rather than x86-based, some applications are better candidates for running on the chip than others. Web languages such as PHP and Java do not have many chip platform dependencies, so "porting costs will be minimal", Calxeda said in an FAQ document. Other distributed applications, such as Hadoop or NoSQL databases, should work well, along with parallel high-performance computing applications used by the oil and gas sector, and in genomics research.

The EnergyCore chip is also available from Calxeda in an EnergyCard format, which is a four-node reference blade, which Calxeda is making available as either a physical product or reference design. It allows for up to four Sata connections per node, and integrates power and 4GB of error-correction code DRAM. The system should have a TDP of 20W across its four processors, Calxeda said.

HP plans EnergyCard server

HP will turn the test Redstone server platform into a product as part of its Moonshot programme to develop microservers and other advanced technologies.

We see this as the beginnings of what will turn into an interesting product set.
– David Chalmers, HP

"We see this as the beginnings of what will turn into an interesting product set," David Chalmers, HP's chief technology officer for the UK and Ireland, told ZDNet UK. "It's very much something that we see as being a complement to and not replacement of our existing business."

The company plans to follow Redstone with similar microservers based on Intel and AMD processors next year, according to Chalmers.

"The HP-designed system contains 288 Calxeda servers in a single 7-inch chassis," noted Calxeda's Evans. "A single rack of HP's Calxeda servers delivers the throughput of nearly 800 traditional servers, and dramatically simplifies the infrastructure needed to hook them all together and manage the cluster."

HP's server design bears similarities, apart from chip architecture, to high-density and low-power servers made by SeaMicro.

Calxeda's disadvantage is that, unlike with smartphones, ARM is not a dominant architecture in servers, so not all server applications are designed for it. Because of this, it could face strong competition from x86 incumbents such as Dell, which resells SeaMicro.

"The Calxeda/HP announcement is further validation of the increasing importance of the microserver market," Andrew Feldman, the chief executive of SeaMicro, told ZDNet UK. "While we applaud Calxeda's execution, and are pleased to see HP entering this crucial market segment, customers have told us they have a marked preference for 64-bit solutions with more DRAM, and also servers that come with a more robust software ecosystem."

Calxeda expects samples of EnergyCore to reach manufacturers in the latter half of 2011 and they should become generally available in the first half of 2012. Prices were not disclosed.

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