November 1, 2011
What's the Big Deal?
Emerging ARM server Calxeda has been hinting for some time that they had a significant partnership announcement in the works, and while we didn’t necessarily not believe them, we hear a lot of claims from startups telling us to “stay tuned” for something big. Sometimes they pan out, sometimes they simply go away. But this morning Calxeda surpassed our expectations by unveiling just one major systems partner – but it just happens to be Hewlett Packard, which dominates the WW market for x86 servers.
At its core (unintended but not bad pun), the HP Hyperscale business unit Project Moonshot and Calxeda’s server technology are about improving the efficiency of web and cloud workloads, and promises improvements in excess of 90% in power efficiency and similar improvements in physical density compared with current x86 solutions. As I noted in my first post on ARM servers and other documents, even if these estimates turn out to be exaggerated, there is still a generous window within which to do much, much, better than current technologies. And workloads (such as memcache, Hadoop, static web servers) will be selected for their fit to this new platform, so the workloads that run on these new platforms will potentially come close to the cases quoted by HP and Calxeda.
The Program And New HP Business Unit
Officially, the announcement was HP announcing their new hyperscale business unit, based on the premise that very high-volume data centers will continue to proliferate, driven by massive continued increases in demand for web and cloud-based applications handling massive amounts of data, and that the trajectory of current systems technology with respect to power, cooling and density may be inadequate for emerging requirements.
HP’s hyperscale initiative consists of three major components:
- HP Discovery Labs – Facilities where potential partners and customers can experiment with HP’s new hyperscale products, both ARM and conventional x86. These centers are a vital component of this initiative because for the most part the workloads are new to this new platform, and both potential users, HP, Calxeda and other partners have a lot of learning to do to about which applications really fit and how to tune them. In effect a learning lab for both customers and suppliers. In many ways the knowledge gained in these centers is more valuable in the early phases than any product revenues that flow from them.
- HP Pathfinder partner ecosystem – The usual suspects, software and hardware partners needed to facilitate the success of the new business unit. While HP was clear in their statements that they will be looking at multiple technologies, the entire announcement is centered around Calxeda, who is simultaneously announcing their EnergyCore server architecture and their accompanying EnergyCard reference architecture. In addition to a number of cloud-centric partners, the initial partnership roster includes Cannonical (Ubuntu Linux), putting a fully functional Linux distribution in the plus column for the nascent ARM ecosystem.
- A product – The HP “Redstone” development system, based on the existing SL6500 system enclosure and Calxeda's EnergyCore servers. The SL6500 is HP’s current dense rack offering for HPC and hyperscale web computing. Redstone swaps out the current x86 servers and substitutes modules with 18 Calxeda EnergyCard servers, cute little 10” x 3” cards that contain four complete SOC quad-core server nodes with integrated memory, management processor, scalable fabric and integrated switch and all network and SATA interfaces, with a 5W per server/20W per card maximum power draw. In total, each server tray packs 72 quad-core ARM servers in 1 RU equivalent of space. If you read my last post on Calxeda’s reference architecture, you can guess that the basic Calxeda architecture is indeed the core of the HP offering, but in keeping with Calxeda’s OEM business model, HP has added value around packaging, extending the SOC fabric topology & I/O, management and power/cooling technology, and will add further value as the line matures.
What Does It Mean
Reduced to its essence, this means that ARM servers are on the industry road map. Among the major effected constituents:
- System vendors – HP is clearly placing its bets on an emerging segment of the server market that cannot be met with current CPU x86 CPU technology and current server designs. As the dominant x86 server vendor, HP is making an intelligent bet, and is now well positioned, with a solid first-mover advantage over its competitors, to capture new opportunities among its existing customer base as well as to capture others who might have gone away and patronized a new ARM server startup in search of ultimate energy efficiency. We might suspect that ARM has had discussions with Dell and IBM. More news to come?
- Customers – Now have (or will have in 2012 when HP officially ships the Redstone) a viable alternative CPU architecture to deploy for appropriate workloads, and I expect a lot of demand for evaluation units and access to the discovery centers. The potential to improve throughput per watt by such huge factors is incentive enough to seriously evaluate the new alternative, and my recommendation is to take a look and see how it works with your own applications.
- Intel and AMD – How about a giant wakeup call? I seriously doubt that this has caught them totally by surprise – the studied silence and nonchalance over the past year with which they responded to any inquiries about the impact of ARM competition had me convinced that they were actually quite worried. But being concerned in the abstract and having your No. 1 customer endorse not only your competition but an entirely new architecture are two different things entirely. Will this destroy Intel and AMD as server vendors? The thought is absolute nonsense, and the overwhelming bulk of the market will remain centered on x86, and HP will retain its position as a premier partner for both HP and AMD. Aside from the large number of workloads that will not particularly benefit from the ARM model, both will respond with further focused R&D to continue to improve their power efficiency, leveraging their strengths in software compatibility and in Intel’s case, their market dominance.
Not that it was exactly boring before, but the server world just got a whole lot more interesting, and customers just got a major early Christmas present – a whole new technology platform for emerging high-volume web and cloud workloads. All in all a very positive event for the industry and for us, the eventual beneficiaries of this technology.
Let us know what you think about this. Inspiration or insanity? Will it impact you directly? Does it change your plans at all?