Processor delays hurt ARM server adoption, Dell exec says

The low-power advantage in ARM server chips is diminishing, says Dell's server chief

Expectations for the success of ARM servers are diminishing as processors and product releases get delayed, a top Dell executive said.

Dell is offering servers based on ARM processors for testing. But the main advantage of ARM processors -- relatively low power consumption -- is quickly disappearing as rival chip companies catch up, and this means there is less incentive for customers to invest in switching over from x86 architecture, said Forrest Norrod, general manager for servers at Dell.

"I think quite frankly the ecosystem is developing a little bit more slowly than expected," Norrod said.

A variety of companies had indicated interest in making server processors based on blueprints from ARM, which does not make components itself but licenses its designs to manufacturers. But to date ARM 64-bit server processors have not been made available commercially.

ARM processors are mainly used in smartphones and tablets, but are being viewed as potentially power-efficient alternatives to Intel's x86 server chips, which dominate data centers. ARM servers are being considered for Web-hosting and cloud installations. But chip makers like Applied Micro and Advanced Micro Devices have delayed shipment of ARM-based chips, which has had a ripple effect on server release dates.

Dell sells x86 servers, but is offering prototype ARM servers for benchmarking and application development. Hewlett-Packard announced plans to use ARM processors in its Moonshot "dense" server, which uses x86 chips, but hasn't announced a definitive release date for the ARM edition.

Intel, and to a lesser degree, Advanced Micro Devices, are expanding their low-power server processor lines, Norrod said, adding that those products will hurt adoption of ARM servers.

The opportunity for ARM servers "is smaller than it used to be than if ARM had been earlier," Norrod said.

Whether or not companies are willing to invest to maintain x86 and ARM server architectures in one infrastructure is an open question, Norrod said.

Most companies have x86 servers. To adopt ARM-based servers, companies will not only have to invest in new servers and components, but also port applications to the architecture. If the total cost of ownership and capital expenditure don't make sense, ARM servers may be left behind, Norrod said.

There are already licensing issues surrounding the adoption of ARM servers, as companies will have to pay more for software per core used in them, Norrod said. In large server installations, ARM servers would require a larger congregation of low-power cores to process even lightweight tasks such as search and social-networking posts.

Most of the software development today is for x86 chips. But ARM is trying to advance the software ecosystem for its processors through industry associations like Linaro and companies like Red Hat.

But it's not helping that the field of ARM server chip makers is narrowing, Norrod said.

Late last year, ARM server pioneer Calxeda folded operations and earlier this year Nvidia scrapped server chip plans. Samsung has also abandoned ARM server chip development, which was revealed in June by enthusiast Web site SemiAccurate.

The early adoption of ARM servers will be concentrated on a narrow set of hyperscale server buyers, but x86 chip makers are also aggressively chasing those customers, Norrod said.

Nevertheless, Dell will offer ARM servers when it senses a viable commercial opportunity, Norrod said.

"We're continuing to play close attention to it. We're moderating end customer interest. We'll continue to stay engaged with the ARM ecosystem ... in time for end customer adoption," Norrod said.

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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