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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, Broadcom, AMD and Qualcomm are also developing ARM server chips, though AppliedMicro seems to be furthest along. CEO Paramesh Gopi showed the company's latest X-Gene system-on-chip at TechCon.

XGene 3 will have 32 processor cores, running at up to 3GHz, with eight DDR4 memory channels and 42 lanes of PCI Express Gen 3. It will be manufactured using 16nm 3D FinFet transistors.

"This is all going to be available in the second half of 2016," Gopi said, holding a sample chip in the air.

He claimed X-Gene 3 systems will be able to take traditional scale-up workloads and run them on scale-out machines, using a new interconnect that AppliedMicro announced separately at the SC15 supercomputing conference today.

ARM servers will "no longer going to be confined to workloads that have inherent parallelization," he said.

Hewlett Packard Enterprise and EMC were at the AppliedMicro event, and expressed interest in using ARM processors in future storage systems.

"We fundamentally think choice is valuable," said Michael Robillard, an EMC distinguished engineer. A key selling point for ARM is that the company has many licensees, creating options for buyers. 

"We have this stuff in our labs, we've been taking measurements on it and we’ve been impressed with what we’ve seen," he said.

Dave Preston, a distinguished technologist at HPE, said his company tested an X-Gene processor attached to four SSDs and hit a "random read workload" of a little over 200,000 IOPS (input/output operations per second). "It's quite compelling for a low-cost chip," he said.

ARM has one of two architectures trying to challenge Intel's dominance. IBM opened up its Power design last year to let other companies build Power servers. It's part of a broader shift in hardware development that was fueled by the Facebook-led Open Compute Project.

Indeed, the initial target for ARM servers is large-scale cloud providers like Facebook and Google, as well as large enterprises that have the engineering resources to design their own systems and software. 

"Maybe the ecosystem isn't as evolved as it should be, but we can evolve it ourselves," said Shen, noting that Morgan Stanley developed its own software container technology years before it was popularized.

The hardware choices around ARM are still limited, however. ARM says there are at least six server models available, but most are development boards from Taiwanese manufacturers. HP is the only major server OEM selling an ARM system. Gigabyte has a server based on Cavium's 48-core ThunderX SOC, but a representative at Cavium's booth said they're not yet in production use. 

PayPal and a French hosting provider, OVH, have discussed using ARM servers, but the extent of the deployments is unknown.


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