HP is currently testing servers based on an ARM architecture, which is basically the same stuff that runs applications on your phones and tablets. The idea is that these little chips use much less power than traditional processors like those of Intel and AMD. Because they use less power, they also require less cooling – and when you know that energy consumption and cooling are among the biggest issues that IT and cloud folks are facing, it’s not hard to imagine the possible implication for current CPU server vendors, namely Intel and AMD.Intel has much of the market share in that space, something that seemed “crazy” a decade ago, when Intel set out to win that market (remember that mobile folks…), but most of today’s drama related to this ARM-based server test is focused on AMD. Why? Because AMD is in a niche market for low-power servers, and today’s news *seem* very bad for them.
So, why do I call that fluff? Mainly because I see stuff like “HP has just killed AMD” or “AMD is the big loser” popping left and right. It’s over-dramatized. For one, this is just a test, so we’re not sure about what will come out of it. The people behind those ARM servers have actually mentioned that this type of server is particularly good at a small number of things, like number crunching on datasets that can be split into small chunks, but it remains to be seen what market share that really covers. Real-world efficiency is the name of the game here. Even performance-per-watt is not good enough.
Secondly, a lot of servers are currently used with a virtualization platform, and ARM processors aren’t very good at that, yet. Finally, many customers are using Windows-based systems that are not currently supported by ARM (but Windows 8+ will run on ARM, so will Windows Server… one day).
All the “AMD is getting killed” talk is just so premature that I consider it as “fluff”, because most of AMD’s pressure mainly comes from… Intel, and some would even say that AMD’s customers use them just to have a qualified server ready, “just in case” Intel blows up, or simply for the lower cost/performance ratio.
Nevertheless, I don’t want to remove any credits from ARM and their future prospects. ARM will build 64-bit designs that can address more than 4GB of memory, and ARM will also integrate some virtualization mechanisms at some point. It’s not clear when this will be effective, and it’s not clear if it will have an overall better performance-per-watt when compared to classic solutions running virtual environments. HP’s announcement is certainly a huge step in ARM’s world.
What we know is that having a swarm of low-power processors may be excellent for specific tasks, but this should not be seen as a miraculous replacement for today’s platforms. Using a swarm of ARM processors is in my view closer to using graphics processors (GPU) to replace traditional servers, than it is to replacing them for website hosting, clouds and web applications.