HP to make ARM servers available for testing in Q2

HP will provide the opportunity for select customers to benchmark and test experimental ARM servers in its labs

Hewlett-Packard will open a lab in the second quarter where select customers will be able to play around with its first low-power server based on an ARM processor, a company executive said this week.

Early access customers will be able to start testing and benchmarking the proof-of-concept server, which will be part of a family of low-power servers being developed by HP under a new platform dubbed the Redstone Server Development Platform.

The Redstone platform was unveiled in November when HP first announced it was developing servers using ARM-based processors. HP at the time said the experimental servers would be made available to select customers in the first half of this year.

"The development platforms are still on track," said Mark Potter, HP senior vice president and general manager of Industry Standard Servers, in an interview at HP's Global Partner conference in Las Vegas.

HP still isn't saying when the ARM servers will be commercially available.

HP is targeting the servers at Web companies looking for energy-efficient servers to quickly process high volumes of online transactions. ARM processors are mainly found in smartphones and tablets, but there is growing interest in building servers with a collection of low-power processors as companies look to curb power costs. Nvidia is building an experimental supercomputer that marries ARM CPUs with its graphics processors, and analysts say ARM servers could be widely used in data centers by 2013.

HP's first ARM-based server packs 288 chips from ARM licensee Calxeda into a 4U rack-mount server with shared power, cooling and management infrastructure. The Calxeda chip, called EnergyCore, has ARM Cortex-A9 processors running at between 1.1GHz and 1.4GHz. The chip includes 4MB of cache, an 80-Gigabit fabric switch and a management engine for power optimization. The chip consumes just 1.5 watts of power.

HP is starting with ARM but other chip architectures, including x86, could be added to Redstone over time, Potter said. Intel offers low-power Atom processors, which are used in servers from SeaMicro and others, and Tilera has its own low-power chip design.

"Certainly we'll have development platforms around new emerging technologies. You can also imagine we're going to have development platforms around x86 standards," Potter said. "We could have processors other than ARM as part of this solution."

The Redstone platform is part of Project Moonshot, HP's broader effort to deliver low-power servers for processing small Web transactions. HP also has Project Odyssey, for its mission-critical server line, and this week it launched its new line of x86 servers, Gen8, as part of Project Voyager, an effort to automate data-center tasks to reduce power and management costs.

Moonshot is aimed at the Web tier and cloud needs, while Voyager is for cloud and big-data needs, Potter said. With the ARM server, HP has said it can slash power and space requirements by as much as 90 percent for companies running certain online transaction workloads.

Web transactions are about processing small user requests as quickly as possible, for which the fastest high-end processor is not needed, Potter said. Low-power processors have less overhead and provide sufficient performance to handle user requests.

"Usually it requires very little compute and it's about the network and storage latency and turning that request around as fast as possible," Potter said.

But it's early days for low-power processors, such as ARM-based chips and Intel's Atom. They have been proven for smartphones and other portable devices but are not yet mature platforms for servers.

ARM processors are currently only 32-bit, and 64-bit ARM chips aren't expected until about 2014. In the server space, 64-bit computing can be important depending on the applications, Potter said.

"It's not about 32- vs. 64-bit. It's also about ECC memory," Potter said. "All those things are going to matter in the future."

Servers can also address more memory and storage with 64-bit capabilities. ARM is including virtualization and more error correction features in its Armv8 architecture.

"It's really about the scale of these Web services. ... For what they need, we've really had to create a totally different architecture," Potter said. "The architecture will lend itself to the best available processor technology."

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