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ARM, Microsoft and AMD's open-source union will disrupt x86 server market

Analysis Server Base System Architecture aims to future-proof the data centre
Wed Feb 05 2014, 16:49
ARM chip

CHIP DESIGNER ARM announced at the Open Compute Project (OCP) Summit last week that servers based on its architecture have taken a step forward with the arrival of ARM v8-A based 64bit servers, known as the Server Base System Architecture (SBSA) specification.

This specification aims to provide a structure for the deployment of the new ARM architecture in data centre applications, with a goal to speed up software development and "enable portability between ARM-based platforms".

We spoke with ARM's director of Server Systems and Ecosystems Lakshmi Mandyam, who explained the firm's motives in setting up the SBSA specification. Mandyam said that the SBSA is intended to meet the needs of the data centre of the future, as the infrastructures presently in place aren't capable of handling the needs of imminent generations.

"With the current economic and power realities, a proprietary, general purpose infrastructure cannot meet the needs of the next billion users, or the evolving needs of currently supported users," Mandyam said. "New services require higher levels of specialisation than traditional enterprise workloads, and this is best served through standards and freedom of choice amongst multiple suppliers."

SBSA is focused on engineering more efficient hardware for cloud and highly scalable computing via open collaboration from partners, which ARM announced along with the SBSA specification. The partners that have also joined the SBSA effort include some rather eminent information technology (IT) innovators such as Canonical, Citrix and Red Hat, as well as OEMs including Dell and HP along with silicon partners such as AMD and Texas Instruments. These IT giants will work together to provide input and help support development of ARM-based systems.

"As data centre customers are adapting to the shifting characteristics of hyperscale workloads, the need for workload optimised solutions, software portability and standardisation are key considerations for deployment," Mandyam added.

"Data centre operators must manage complex environments, so software versions and patch management are important aspects in maintaining a reliable installation. They need a single OS image/kernel for all ARM v8-A based servers that aligns with the deployment methods they are currently accustomed to."

The public release of the SBSA simplifies development processes for the entire ecosystem across OS, virtualisation and firmware developers, from silicon to end users. Its aim is to provide a foundation upon which additional specifications can be built and published.

One of the more notable partners involved in the project is Microsoft. The firm's VP of Cloud & Enterprise Bill Laing delivered a keynote at the OCP Summit, announcing that the Redmond firm will join the OCP to share its cloud server specification.

Microsoft must deem the collaboration to define SBSA as important, as it has opened its cloud server specification as part of the partnership and is sharing the blueprints for the data centre servers the Redmond firm has designed, which power Microsoft's global cloud services like Windows Azure, Office 365, Bing and others.

"Microsoft is the only global cloud provider to publicly release these server specifications through OCP, and the information we are sharing is highly detailed," Laing said.

Even more interestingly, Laing added that as part of this effort, Microsoft Open Technologies is open sourcing the software code it created for management of hardware operations, such as server diagnostics, power supply and fan control, because it "would like to help build an open source software community within OCP as well".

At the OCP Summit, IT industry OEM partners were showing production hardware based on Microsoft's OCP specifications. As a result, Laing said that Microsoft can take technology from public cloud offerings and build them into its private cloud services.

"It's a virtuous cycle that enables a consistent hybrid cloud platform - a Cloud OS - spanning Windows Azure, partner clouds and customer data centres," Laing said "That consistency gives customers more flexibility to move and manage enterprise applications across clouds, and more choice in the IT models that best fit their needs and budgets."

As for chip designer AMD, its involvement in the OCP includes the development of its first working 64bit ARM based processors for servers that it showed off last week at the OCP Summit.

AMD announced that sampling of its first ARM based server processor is "imminent". The 28nm chip formerly codenamed Seattle will now be known as the AMD Opteron A1100 Series when it ships to system builders.

The Opteron A1100 Series processors will be 64bit chips with four or eight cores, each supporting dual DDR3 or DDR4 1866MHz memory channels with error correction code (ECC). As system on chip (SoC) designs, these will also support integrated input/output (I/O) including dual gigabit Ethernet ports, eight PCI Express lanes and eight SATA ports for data storage.

Along with processor samples, AMD said it will deliver a development platform this quarter that will make it quicker and easier to design software to run on its ARM based server systems.

In what we can imagine is no coincidence, AMD's ARM based 64bit chips are likely to disrupt the x86 Intel-based server chip market by using smaller and more power efficient ARM cores in AMD server processors. That drops a big hint as to why Intel isn't part of the OCP collaboration. SBSA is a SoC specification focused on ARM v8-A processors, and Intel is not developing these.

"Adopting industry standards and defining base platforms are essential for creating a healthy ARM-based 64-bit server ecosystem," said AMD corporate VP Leendert van Doorn.

With the SBSA, ARM's ultimate goal is to give end-users and developers alike a standard target to develop against.

Although the firm admits that the ARM server value proposition is that "one size does not fit all", the company believes the SBSA specification supports the ARM business model of "enabling innovation and customisation while accelerating software development and driving cross-platform portability".

SBSA minimises the conflict of different systems' capabilities, making it possible to target support for multiple ARMv8-A based system designs with a single OS image/kernel offering.

"Firmware and OS developers will have a well-defined progression of foundational platform capabilities they can target with their products," ARM's Mandyam said. "This allows them to develop for future platforms ahead of hardware availability and be ready when the first hardware arrives." µ


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