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AMD ARMs for Data Center Brawl

By Charles King E-Commerce Times ECT News Network
Nov 6, 2012 5:00 AM PT

The success of ARM-based processors in mobile phones and tablets has had a tectonic effect across numerous IT markets, but one of their most intriguing opportunities is in data centers. It seems contradictory that a CPU architecture designed for power efficiency and lightweight applications would be considered for compute-intensive environments.

AMD ARMs for Data Center Brawl

However, innovations in clustering, grid, fabrics and other areas have set the stage for so-called "micro-server" solutions from newcomers including Calxeda and Marvell, and piqued the interest of major players like Dell and HP.

Until AMD's recent announcement that it would add ARM-based solutions to its Opteron portfolio by 2014, there had been a clear delineation between ARM and the x86 silicon that dominates volume server sales. That doesn't mean x86 doesn't have a place in micro-server applications. In fact, AMD has continued pushing the energy efficiency of its traditional Opteron CPUs.

Plus, Intel is pursuing numerous efforts around its Xeon and Atom processors, significantly improving energy performance and emphasizing the value of their native compatibility with existing applications and other solutions.

Huge Opportunity

So does AMD's announcement change the market dynamic for either ARM or x86 servers? No and yes. To the first point, there isn't much of a market for ARM-based servers today, and significant demand for these solutions seems years away. In fact, Lisa Su, SVP and GM of AMD's global business units, said that it would take "a year or two" after the company's new Opteron solutions arrive for them to achieve sustainable profitability.

However, the nature of that market -- if it evolves as AMD and its partners suggested it would at the launch in San Francisco -- could be considerable. Frankly, interest in energy-efficient servers tends to wax and wane in broader markets, depending on the price of electricity and the profile of "green" ecological issues.

Still, it has been a core concern among owners of massive, hyperscale data centers for years. These companies -- including Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other leading vendors in cloud, Web 2.0 and related services -- may be a small, exclusive club, but they represent a large and potentially huge market opportunity.

Dell's presence at the AMD launch was a significant indicator of this. The company's Data Center Solutions (DCS) group was founded five years ago to focus on hyperscale customers. Dell has certainly succeeded in that space, owning a commanding lead in the sector. IDC's most recent survey of this space gave the company 45.2 percent of the market, compared to second place HP's 15.5 percent. In fact, Dell announced just last week that it sold its millionth DCS server.

Commercial Potential

Are micro-servers ever likely to become a major commercial segment? That's harder to say. At AMD's ARM launch event, Red Hat was the nearest thing to a mainstream ISV supporting the company's effort. That wasn't surprising, given the company's position among Linux-happy megascale data center owners, but it is unclear if and how many other ISVs will follow suit.

In the short term, ARM-based servers will largely be of interest to the hyperscale data center clients AMD is initially targeting, thus inhabiting a small yet potentially lucrative niche. However, the situation could well change if major ISVs like Microsoft and SAP decide to port their solutions to ARM-based hardware.

That said, the ARM-based server narrative isn't purely a silicon story. AMD's purchase of SeaMicro earlier this year offered the company a solid foot up in the micro-server category with the Freedom Fabric -- SeaMicro's interconnect technology that supports the clustering of hundreds or thousands of servers, as well as far more efficient usage of compute, memory and networking resources.

In fact, innovative fabrics play a role in the efforts of virtually every micro-server vendor (including Intel, which acquired high performance fabric assets from Qlogic and Cray this year). Freedom Fabric is platform-agnostic. In fact, AMD continues to sell SeaMicro servers based on Intel Atom and Xeon CPUs, and it is developing Opteron-based systems that leverage the technology. When the company's new ARM chips arrive, the Freedom Fabric will be ready and waiting.

Overall, AMD's plans for ARM-based 64-bit Opteron solutions seems to be both a workable extension of the company's existing technology assets and an intelligent approach to preparing for evolving markets. The strategy isn't without risk, since it depends on developments that are cast in anything but stone.

However, it is necessary. Without this or similarly bold initiatives, AMD would likely be consigned to also-ran status indefinitely. The right ARM-based solutions, properly exercised, could provide AMD a means of competing more effectively against existing foes in the short term and winning many battles ahead.

E-Commerce Times columnist Charles King is principal analyst for Pund-IT, an IT industry consultancy that emphasizes understanding technology and product evolution, and interpreting the effects these changes will have on business customers and the greater IT marketplace. Though Pund-IT provides consulting and other services to technology vendors, the opinions expressed in this commentary are King's alone.

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