FRAMINGHAM, 9 MARCH 2011 - Dell is experimenting with chips based on ARM processors in its servers, but the architecture faces software issues that could stop it from being a viable alternative to x86 in the short term, a company executive said on Wednesday.
Some Dell clients are intrigued by low-power servers with ARM processors, which have interesting attributes related to power and density in data centers, said Forrest Norrod, vice president and general manager of server platforms for Dell. However, there are major concerns about the weak software ecosystem surrounding ARM.
"Fundamentally it's a software issue," Norrod said. "Are there enough benefits from that architecture for porting your code over to that new instruction set ... and maintain[ing] two different software stacks? It's never as trivial as it sounds."
Many servers run on Intel's (INTC) Xeon and Advanced Micro Devices (AMD)' Opteron chips, but there is a growing interest in adding low-power x86 netbook chips as companies look to cut energy bills. Dell already offers low-power servers with Via's Nano chips on a selective basis, and startup SeaMicro last week announced a low-power server that includes 256 of Intel's latest Atom N570 dual-core processors.
There are also time and cost issues associated with porting software from x86 to ARM, Norrod said. But the prospect of ARM processors -- which are used in most of the world's smartphones and tablets -- being an alternative to x86 is drawing attention.
"The jury's still out -- this thread is causing Intel and AMD to shift gears," Norrod said.
Norrod said that Dell has a good sense of what the ARM ecosystem will look like for the next 12 to 18 months. Depending on customer demand and viability, the company will have a strategy in place to release ARM-based servers.
ARM, which licenses CPU designs to chip makers, started talking about server processors in 2008. Marvell in November announced an ARM-based quad-core chip for servers, marking the chip designer's entry into the server market. Calxeda and Nvidia are also developing chips based on ARM cores.
ARM doesn't have the history in the server market, and most of the software tuning takes place for the x86 architecture, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.
Some companies are also reluctant to experiment with new architectures such as ARM especially when running critical applications, McCarron said. Intel's Xeon has RAS (reliability, availability and serviceability) features to solve data errors on the fly and ensure high server uptime.
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