ARM accelerates server software ecosystem efforts

ARM will reach out to virtualization software, OS companies to write apps for its processors

ARM Holdings is seeking the support of software makers for its plan to put its low-power processors in servers, company executives said this week.

Most of the software written for servers is designed to run on x86 chips made by Intel and Advanced Micro Devices. ARM and x86 architecture use different instruction sets, so software would need to rewritten to run on servers containing ARM processors.

ARM has set up a dedicated team to chase the server opportunity and will reach out to virtualization software makers and server OS companies to write applications for the company's processors, said Vice President of Software Alliances James McNiven during a webcast of the company's analyst conference.

ARM is a dominant player in the mobile device market with the processor designs it develops and licenses, but it has almost no presence in the server market. As more servers connect to the Internet, ARM sees an opportunity to put processors in servers that execute web-related tasks such as search and social networking transactions.

During analyst day speeches, company officials argued that ARM processors are fast, and more power-efficient for such workloads than conventional server chips such as Intel's Xeon or AMD's Opteron.

"We think server ... is a good opportunity for ARM. We're looking to apply the lessons we've learned over several different ecosystems over many years to that ecosystem in servers," McNiven said.

ARM is relatively new to the server market compared to Intel and AMD, whose processors populate data centers. ARM initially started looking at the server market two years ago, when it set up a team of marketing and research and development people to explore the opportunity.

A year later the company built a prototype web server with Marvell, a chip maker that uses ARM's designs in some of its chips. Last November, Marvell announced a 1.6GHz quad-core server chip based on ARM intellectual property.

"We have been running a small part of the ARM.com website on that [server] for about 18 months now to get a lot more background data and learn about the market," McNiven said.

Last August, ARM decided to test the server market by investing in Smooth-Stone, a startup that designs low-power servers. The company, now renamed Calxeda, has announced a low-power ARM-based server, though the product is not yet available.

But servers are only as useful as the software available for them, so ARM is taking steps to develop the software ecosystem. The company offers coding tools and works with outside developers to write compatible software.

ARM introduced its first processor that could go into servers, the Cortex-A15, in September last year. McNiven said the company is looking to work with virtualization software makers to build applications that take advantage of the processor's virtualization features.

As the addressable market increases, ARM will also work with companies to develop server OSes and to optimize runtimes such as Java to work effectively on ARM processors in server environments.

The company will try to reuse existing code written for mobile devices in the server software ecosystem, McNiven said. That could help reduce software development costs for companies. ARM was able reuse mobile code on its internal server, and software such as browser or networking stacks can be easily ported across device types, McNiven said.

ARM declined to name specific software companies it is working with. But the company has successfully worked with Google, Apple and Microsoft to develop mobile OSes such as Android, iOS and Windows Phone 7. Microsoft's next Windows operating system will also work on ARM processors, and Google has said it is developing Chrome OS for ARM processors.

But ARM faces hardware challenges as it tries to establish a presence in the server market. The Cortex-A15 does not include 64-bit addressing, and has a limited physical memory ceiling. However, ARM CEO Warren East has said the company has access to a large part of the server market as many cloud applications on servers are 32-bit.

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