TechCon 2014: New ARM-Based Solutions from HP and AMD

By Charles King, Pund-IT, Inc.  October 1, 2014

At ARM’s TechCon 2014 event in San Jose, Calif., HP announced two new ARM-based servers and is also making available a production-ready platform to enable software developers to develop, test and port applications to the 64-bit ARM-based server. HP’s new solutions include:

  1. A HP ProLiant m400 64-bit server is designed to deliver exceptional performance and quality in a solution ready for deployment in enterprise datacenters that meets customers’ most critical compute requirement – balanced memory at a lower total cost of ownership. The ProLiant m400 servers are based on the X-Gene SoC from Applied Micro Circuits Corporation with Canonical Ubuntu operating system. In addition, the company announced the availability of IBM Informix, the only commercially available database to run on HP’s new ProLiant Moonshot micro server architecture.
  2. The ProLiant m800 optimized for real-time data processing of high volume, complex data, such as pattern analysis, is a 32-bit ARM-based server leveraging KeyStone architecture-based 664AK2Hx SoCs from Texas Instruments. The new solutions feature four ARM Cortex A15 cores and integrated digital signal processor (DSPs), Canonical Ubuntu OS, and HP 2D Torus Mesh Fabric in combination with Serial Rapid I/O.
  3. HP is also extending the reach of the growing ARM ecosystem with the ProLiant Moonshot ARM-64 Developer Program, part of the company’s AllianceOne program. Developers can design fully-featured software for ARM-based 64-bit systems by remotely accessing the HP ProLiant Moonshot Discovery Lab.

Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) also introduced new ARM-based technologies at TechCon 2014, including demonstrating the first network function virtualization (NFV) solution based on its Embedded R-Series SoC (codenamed: “Hierofalcon”), which the company said it is sampling to AMD embedded customers. Supported with technologies from Aricent (networking SW stack) and Mentor Graphics (embedded Linux & tools), AMD’s NFV is designed to simplify deployment and management processes for network and telecommunications SPs interested in flexible software-defined networking (SND) implementations.

As part of the demo, AMD also virtualized the functionality of a packet data gateway, serving gateway and a mobility management entity, and showcased a live traffic migration between the ARM-based solution and an x86-based second generation AMD R-series APU. The company expects to begin shipping the AMD Embedded R-Series SoC in the first half of 2015.

The Pitch

HP and AMD help make ARM ready for data center prime time.

Final Analysis

People have been talking-up the concept of ARM-based data center solutions for half a decade, but with these announcements by AMD and HP, the possibility of commercial ARM-based iron arriving in enterprise data centers is closer than ever before. So how likely is it that HP’s ProLiant Moonshot and/or AMD’s Hierofalcon will make a significant impact on business computing? Just as importantly, are the issues that sparked initial interest in ARM-based servers half a decade ago still relevant today, or have things changed?

Consider first how circuitous ARM’s journey to corporate data centers has been. Early in 2011, Calxeda (then “Smooth-Stone”) announced plans for a server with 120 densely packed-quad-core ARM Cortex A-9 CPUs. The company wasn’t the first to explore ARM silicon for servers (Marvel, whose ARM chips are used in Dell’s Copper initiative, was arguably ahead of the game) or many-core architectures (like those of Tilera, SeaMicro [now part of AMD] or even IBM’s BlueGene). But Calxeda was good at capturing public attention and, after announcing a high-profile partnership with HP, became something of a barometer for a market mostly made up of innovative start-up companies.

Their common pitch was pretty straightforward: ARM’s ability to pack substantial compute muscle into a small power envelope promised notably energy efficient servers and other IT solutions. The notion of cramming hundreds of ARM cores into a single server and leveraging high performance interconnect technologies (like SeaMicro’s Freedom Fabric) meant that individual systems could perform and be managed as clusters with cores apportioned according to the computing needs of specific workloads and business processes.

Proponents claimed that would make ARM-based systems far more energy- and compute-efficient than traditional servers, especially Intel-based solutions. That seemed pretty attractive, especially to cloud players deploying thousands of systems and to organizations slammed by growing data center OPEX costs. But problems occurred along the way.

Those included production delays for the 64-bit ARM chips that most believed were critical to workable system offerings. Then last December, Calxeda unexpectedly declared Chapter 11. Those missteps and resulting uncertainties also gave Intel the time and many of the opportunities it needed to catch up, delivering innovative Xeon, Atom and Phi server processors that allowed customers to capture far greater performance, energy efficiency and flexibility without having to cope with radical silicon and system changes.

So where do things stand now?

This year’s TechCon seems designed to set ARM’s vision of what it hopes to accomplish during the next decade or so. The company has a commanding presence in mobile computing (phones and tablets), but what it really wants and needs is to become a driving force in new areas, particularly embedded system and data center technologies.

The former market is made for ARM’s known strengths, since success depends on crafting solutions that deliver first rate energy efficiency while supporting top line programming tools, sophisticated networking and related back end technologies. The latter is a harder sell since, though there’s certainly been a great deal of interest and ink devoted to ARM servers, effective data center products and success stories have been harder to find.

HP’s new ProLiant Moonshot servers are certainly worth watching, largely because of the company’s leading or solid position in many data center markets. That isn’t meant to suggest that Moonshot is purely an ARM play – HP’s architecture also supports workloads featuring Intel technologies. But the company’s reputation in business computing seems likely to help legitimize ARM among customers and tire-kickers.

However, there’s also certainly no guarantee that Moonshot will help ARM-based systems succeed commercially. The market supremacy of Intel’s data center portfolio and its continuing silicon and system innovations have blunted many of the conventional arguments favoring ARM. That doesn’t mean ARM-based solutions are DOA but it makes the active assistance of HP and other IT heavy hitters absolutely crucial.

AMD is heading in a somewhat different direction, and its Hierofalcon SoC aims to leverage the company’s considerable work around ARM into numerous workable solutions. AMD’s NFV demos at TechCon were clearly aimed at the telco industry, which has both the deep pockets and willingness to embrace innovation necessary to usher in new technologies. But the fact is that Hierofalcon’s qualities should also help AMD find success in numerous other embedded markets, including industrial controls, medical imaging, digital signage and more.

The fact that the company is the only silicon vendor currently combining 64-bit ARM and x86 technologies in the same portfolio (highlighted in its TechCon demo) should also allow AMD to craft an effectively unique, believable “endpoint to the data center” strategy that many customers could and should find appealing. In essence, AMD is pitching ARM as a valuable standalone data center technology that can also complement existing systems and IT infrastructures.

A final point: Along with their new or upcoming ARM-based commercial solutions, both HP and AMD are actively engaging in a range of market development efforts. HP’s ProLiant Moonshot ARM-64 Developer Program is a clear example of this, providing a leg up to interested developers and (the company hopes) seeding the ground for additional solution development. But AMD’s NFV demo which is designed to impact software-defined networking – a current industry hotspot – is also likely to elicit interest among developers, vendors and other potential customers.

The thing to remember here is that new technology markets seldom, if ever, arrive fully formed or driven by lone vendors or singular events. Instead, they are built one brick at a time by interested parties, working in collaboration, until the final structure can stand on its own. Whether ARM’s data center ambitions will eventually extend or exceed its grasp is impossible to predict at this juncture. But the technologies introduced at TechCon by HP, AMD and other partners will provide the foundation for whatever success ARM eventually achieves.

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