Ubuntu Linux bets on the ARM server

Would you believe that ARM processors, those little chips that power so many smartphones and tablets, have a future on servers? Ubuntu does.
Written by Steven Vaughan-Nichols, Senior Contributing Editor

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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