Dell expands stable of ARM server prototypes, but is not shipping products yet

Dell has developed a prototype ARM storage server for customers to play with

Dell, not typically an early adopter of server technology, is still experimenting with systems based on ARM architecture while rival Hewlett-Packard has jumped ahead.

Dell showed a new proof-of-concept, ARM-based storage server at the TechCon conference in Santa Clara, California, last week. It is the latest experimental 64-bit ARM server being offered by Dell for customers to develop and test applications.

There has been a lot of hype surrounding servers that offer power-efficient ARM processors, best known for powering smartphones and tablets. But ARM servers are finally reaching the market, with HP beating Dell to the punch with an ARM server it announced last week.

ARM is drawing interest in servers for processing Web tasks in a quick and power-efficient manner, especially as more data is fed from mobile devices into data centers. But questions remain, regarding whether ARM will be able to establish a presence in a market dominated by Intel's x86 chips. So far it's been a struggle, as makers of ARM-based chips delay products, cancel product plans, or even shut down entirely.

Dell's experimental 1U storage server can accommodate 12 storage drives, according to Alaa Yousif, enterprise system strategist at Dell, in a video posted on ARM's YouTube channel.

"We heard there is a big need for a lot of drives behind compute," which is why the company built the server, Yousif said.

The proof-of-concept machine was built following customer demand for 64-bit ARM processors, Yousif said. The storage server has a X-Gene ARM processor made by AppliedMicro, which has emerged as an early leader in the ARM-based server market over rivals Advanced Micro Devices and Cavium. AppliedMicro has licensed the chip architecture from ARM, just like its rivals.

But it's not yet certain whether or when Dell will offer ARM servers, and the company did not respond to multiple requests for comments. The company so far has taken a wait-and-watch approach to see if a market for ARM servers develops.

If there's sufficient demand for ARM servers, Dell will be ready to move, said Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT.

"The company is focused on entering markets with profitable return," King said.

Dell may also still have work to do on ARM servers, King said, adding that it sees a place for such systems in hyperscale environments.

Dell also sees many opportunities for ARM in data centers, according to a slide from a presentation at TechCon.

Customers have bargaining power, with the ability to select CPUs from multiple ARM server chip makers, according to the slide deck. Server chips based on x86 tend to be expensive, and customers typically have only two vendors -- Intel and Advanced Micro Devices -- to choose from. Dell also highlighted the performance-per-watt benefits.

Dell has deployed prototype ARM servers at various locations around the world for specific customers who want to write and test applications. The servers are also accessible via remote access to customers who sign a non-disclosure agreement.

But the company has also aired some concerns on ARM servers. The concerns revolve around ARM server chips having been delayed, and a lack of robust software that can run on ARM-based servers. Intel is also closing in on ARM territory, offering power-efficient Atom server chips specifically targeted to stunt the growth of ARM servers.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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