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Morgan Stanley kicks tires on ARM servers, wants a rival for Intel

James Niccolai | Nov. 16, 2015
The financial services giant has been testing ARM servers in its data centers.

Cavium ThunderX
A server board with Cavium's ThunderX chip on show at ARM TechCon on Nov. 11. 2015. Credit: James Niccolai

lot has been written about servers based on ARM processors, but there's little data about how many are actually being used in production. That’s still the case, but we now have another large customer that’s at least admitted to trying them out -- and it’s reasons for doing so are not good for Intel.

Morgan Stanley is testing a server with ARM processors from AppliedMicro for use in its data centers, said Bert Shen, vice president of technology business development at the financial services firm. He spoke on a panel organized by AppliedMicro at the ARM TechCon conference in Silicon Valley this week.

The chip maker showed Morgan Stanley a benchmark that compelled it to take a closer look at ARM. "They ran a very relevant columnar database benchmark for us and got a 5x performance improvement per rack compared to an Intel Haswell EP solution,” he said. “We thought this was about the right time to bring in a POC [proof of concept]."

It’s a small test -- Morgan Stanley is running a few ARM cartridges in an HP Moonshot chassis -- but it can help adoption of new technologies if well known businesses go public with their efforts. "We’re excited about what the results might end up being but we’ll have to wait and see," Shen said.

Performance is only one reason Morgan Stanley is looking at ARM. "There's another really important aspect to this, which is our sourcing strategy," Shen said. Like other large companies, it doesn't like being beholden to a single vendor for an important technology.

"For large enterprises, ideally you have two vendors for a product line. You try to avoid three vendors unless it's a commoditized product. But when there's one vendor, you basically run like hell."

AMD is technically a second supplier of x86 server processors, but Intel utterly dominates the market.

It was one of a few signs at TechCon that the market for ARM servers is moving forward. ARM itself, which has tempered expectations in the past, is now more bullish -- it said this week that by 2020 it expects 25 percent of processors going into server sockets to be ARM-based, a huge target to try to reach.

ARM processors are best known for their use in smartphones and tablets, but advocates say they can be more energy-efficient for server tasks that are highly parallelized and can be spread over many cores, such as dishing up Web pages or crunching big data in distributed programs like Hadoop.

 

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