HP is developing servers based on a low-power microprocessor design from ARM Holdings, and claims it can slash power and space requirements by as much as 90 percent for companies running certain web-based applications.
The servers use a 32-bit processor from ARM licensee Calxeda, and are aimed at web giants such as Yahoo and Facebook, as well as other companies running large scale cloud applications for tasks like data analysis, web serving and content delivery.
HP's server design packs 288 Calxeda chips into a 4U rack-mount server, or 2,800 in a full rack, with a shared power, cooling and management infrastructure. By eliminating much of the cabling and switching devices used in traditional servers, and using the low-power ARM processors, HP says it can reduce both power and space requirements dramatically.
It will release its first ARM servers in the first half of next year, said Glenn Keels, director of marketing for HP's Hyperscale Business Unit. However, they'll be for testing and evaluation purposes only, he said, and HP isn't saying yet when it expects to sell ARM-based servers for production use.
"We want to get the technology out there so that people can start testing their applications for suitability," Keels said.
Still, it's a big step for HP, which becomes the first major vendor to announce an ARM-based server. It's also significant for Calxeda, a startup that's been developing its technology in secret and has yet to even announce its first product.
But Tuesday's news is about more than a new server, Keels said. The Calxeda system will be the first in a family of energy efficient servers that HP will release for "hyperscale" customers using a new platform it developed called the Redstone Server Development Platform.
In addition to the Calxeda product, HP will develop further Redstone servers using low-power chips from other vendors, including Intel's Atom processor, Keels said.
"This is about much more than a server," he said. "It's an infrastructure, its a customer enablement program, and its about uniting industry partners behind a vision for extreme energy efficiency that will evolve in the coming quarters and the coming years."
HP will ship its first ARM system to only 30 or 40 of its biggest customers for testing, Keels said. Other customers will be able to visit HP labs in the US, China and France to try out their applications and see if they scale efficiently on the new hardware.
The Redstone platform uses a 4U rack-mount server chassis. Inside, HP has put 72 small server boards, each with four Calxeda processors, 4GB of RAM and 4MB of L2 cache. Each processor, based on the ARM Cortex-A9 design, runs at 1.4GHz and has its own 80 gigabit cross-bar switch built into the chip.
The server boards can be swapped out for small form factor, 2.5 inch hard drives or for solid state drives, for customers that want more storage instead of compute power.
Keels claimed a half rack of the Calxeda servers can do as much work as 10 racks of two-socket x86 servers, when running certain applications including Hadoop or the Apache web server. But the Calxeda servers draw only 9 kilowatts or one tenth of the power of the x86 servers, according to Keels.
HP isn't alone in building efficient servers for "hyperscale" environments. SeaMicro sells a 10U server called the SM10000 that has 512 Intel Atom cores and uses some of the same shared infrastructure principles as HP's Redstone. And Dell builds servers for big customers using a variety of low-power processors, and has said it is experimenting with ARM chips.
ARM-based servers face several challenges, however. There's no 64-bit ARM processor today, which limits the amount of memory HP's servers will be able to address, and hence the types of applications they will be able to run. ARM just announced its first 64-bit design, but its not expected in systems until 2014.
Being 32-bit-only also limits what's already a fairly small pool of server software options. A version of Red Hat's Fedora Linux is available for 32-bit ARM processors, Keels said, and Canonical has said it will do a 32-bit version Ubuntu for ARM, he said.
Those limitations mean that for most customers, more traditional x86 servers will remain the dominant platform for some time. "We aren't slowing down at all on our traditional x86 environments, which will continue to be the workhorses of our data centres well throughout the rest of the decade," Keels said.