Data Center Apparatus

May 30 2012   9:48AM GMT

Dell floats ARM server trial balloon

Beth Pariseau Beth Pariseau Profile: Beth Pariseau

Dell has shipped its “Copper” ARM-based server to a limited list of customers and partners, with the goal of sussing out uses for the low-power chip in enterprise environments.

The 32-bit Advanced RISC Machine (ARM) chips are used widely in cell phones and tablets. They have also begun to appear in microservers such as HP’s Moonshot, based on a partnership with Calxeda, Inc. since November.

At the server level, low-power chips are suited to environments where many relatively lightweight operations such as Web serving must be performed in parallel at massive scale.

Meanwhile, other low-power chips such as Intel Corp.’s Atom have been sold for similar purposes, including microserver startup SeaMicro Inc.’s products prior to the company’s acquisition by AMD. SeaMicro’s products were also resold by Dell.

“That’s a great question,” Dell executive director of marketing Steve Cumings said when asked why an IT pro seeking low-power scale-out hardware would use ARM over Atom or vice versa.

The answer is what Dell is after with the limited shipments of Copper, as well as two test clusters being set up in Dell’s Texas headquarters and at the Texas Advanced Computing Center for remote access by interested parties.

Currently, there’s a lot of code written for consumer devices on ARM, but very little in the way of enterprise applications, which is one thing holding ARM back. Dell also announced it will offer a version of its Crowbar automated server provisioning software on ARM by the end of the year.

The fact that 64-bit ARM designs have yet to hit production is a limiting factor to server-level adoption of the chip. Dell expects ARM servers to be used in production over the next 18 months to two years, when 64-bit chips become commonplace.

The Dell Copper server offers 48 ARM microservers based on the Marvell Armada CPU in a 3U shared environment. Each server node consumes 15 watts and includes Serial Advanced Technology Attachment or Flash storage; up to 8 GB RAM; and a 1 GbE input. Four server nodes are packed into a sled, each of which contains a non-blocking Layer 2 switch, and each chassis contains 12 sleds. The entire chassis draws 750 watts of power.

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