Lenovo building its first prototype ARM server

Lenovo's ARM-based NextScale is an effort to build more power-efficient systems for data centers

There's a growing interest in developing ARM servers as a power-efficient alternative to systems based on Intel's processors: Lenovo is the latest hardware vendor to test the concept with a prototype system.

Lenovo is building the server together with the U.K.-based Science and Technology Facilities Council. The project aims to see if it's possible to scale up system performance while keeping power draw in check.

Low-power ARM chips are used in most smartphones and tablets, and server makers hope they will bring higher levels of power efficiency to servers as well. Data center servers, especially those supporting cloud services and applications, are handling increasing processing burdens. Companies like Facebook and Google that run huge data centers are interested in ARM servers as a route to lower electricity bills.

Lenovo is the last of the top three server makers to get in on the ARM game. HP already offers ARM processors for its Moonshot dense server, while Dell is still experimenting with the architecture in its servers.

Lenovo is using 64-bit ARM processors in a NextScale system, which was first developed by IBM but then turned over to the Chinese server company as part of the x86 server portfolio sale last year. The NextScale rack-scale server -- which competes with HP's Moonshot -- was originally built in late 2013 around low-power x86 chips, but has been expanded to include a water-cooling system and Intel's Xeon chips.

The goal of the prototype ARM server is to drive up performance-per-dollar and performance-per-watt compared to traditional server design methods deployed today, said Doug Augustine, a Lenovo spokesman, in an e-mail.

The ARM server is optimized for specific uses like web search, caching and cloud, Augustine said.

The NextScale can hold up to 12 ARM-based server boards, or 1,152 processing cores. Lenovo is using Cavium's ThunderX system-on-chips, which includes Ethernet, memory, I/O and other key interfaces. Each ARM chip has up to 48 cores, and can operate at a frequency of up to 2.5GHz.

Besides Cavium, AppliedMicro, AMD, Broadcom, and others are supplying chips for ARM servers.

Lenovo today sells only servers with x86 chips from Intel. It doesn't view ARM servers as a high-volume opportunity at the moment, Augustine said.

Intel today holds more than 90 percent market share in servers, and even ARM server chip vendors like AMD have admitted it may take many years before the chips are widely adopted in data centers. But an effort is underway to raise awareness about the chips' benefits and to develop compatible software.

Lenovo's project is a positive sign for ARM, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research. Qualcomm said late last year that it is developing ARM-based server chips, and momentum behind the architecture is only growing, he said.

"It's going to make the server environment more competitive, that's what everyone is waiting for," McGregor said. "It's just a question of how long it's going to take."

The market for ARM in the enterprise will only take off when the ecosystem that rides on it is built, Lenovo's Augustine said. OS, hypervisors, compilers, performance optimizers, file systems, and the like are just starting to be put in place, he said.

Many Linux applications are already compatible with ARM server chips, and Oracle's Java supports the architecture. Microsoft is rumored to be building a version of Windows Server for ARM processors.

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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