Inside Extreme Scale Tech|Friday, October 24, 2014
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Why Penguin Computing Entered the ARMs Race 

The UDX1 miniserver is Penguin Computing’s first move into the ARM-based platform. The company’s other rackmount servers have been based on x86 chips: The Relion server line uses Intel Xeon E3 and E5 processors and the Altus servers use AMD’s Opteron 4200 and 6200 processors. Wuischpard says the move into the ARM-based server market was a natural progression for Penguin Computing. The company started in 1998 with a focus on low-cost Linux servers as interest in that platform began to catch on. As the datacenter business focus turned to high performance computing around 2003, it offered HPC Cluster Solutions. Now the business is emphasizing green, highly efficient datacenters, and Wuischpard sees demand for low-power chips like the highly efficient ARM processors.

“We’ve been focused across the board on the greenest solutions,” says Wuischpard, and that puts his focus on ARM. “We’re getting that feedback directly. A lot of our customers are looking at ARM. There’s a big interest in the technology going forward, mostly because of low power consumption. Everybody in the industry is thinking about that, talking about it—first with AMD, then Intel, and now ARM.”

Every time new industry needs arise, he says, customers start looking for new suppliers. And with double-digit growth forecast for the next several years, that gives Penguin huge opportunity to expand its market again with ARM-based miniservers. Datacenter operators are trying to figure out the right balance between the cost of power, the cooling technology and the ability to run run the datacenter at warmer temperatures.

Of course, zero-carbon and green energy initiatives from the likes of Google, IBM and Microsoft notwithstanding, the ideal of lowering a company’s carbon footprint alone is not going to push most companies into the energy-efficient space. Low power means higher profits, and power management in general is a big issue these days. “People are just not sure how to run within the power envelope,” he says. “There’s a lot of research into power consumption.” The future of HPC is in energy-efficient computing, he says. “Exascale computing is an arms race. A big part of that is green.”

Penguin Computing’s UDX1  

Microservers based on low-power processors like ARM are ideal for that market. The EnergyCore ECX-100 ARM server SoC that Penguin is using tops out at 5 watts. The UDX1 chassis sports 48 server nodes and only draws 240 watts. A chassis with a full 48 server nodes is priced at around $30,000, depending on configuration.

Wuischpard says he has already sold a few of the UDX1 systems. “Companies have been quite interested. In the last two days we’ve gotten a lot of calls from systems integrators. We’re looking at Internet-based customers as well. They’re all looking at ARM.”

So far, however, buyers are largely interested in evaluating the systems. Two of the the early orders were from national laboratories for R&D, one to a financial services firm. People are still evaluating the idea of pairing a lot of storage capability behind a lightweight processor.

But that fits the need going forward. Today’s low-power processors can easily handle the highly distributed workload in modern datacenters, where the emphasis is turning to virtualization and the ability to provide virtual private clouds for customers. That makes the smaller, less powerful chips ideal, especially when built into highly configurable systems. The Calxeda-based UDX1 system includes node-to-node connectivity through an internal 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch fabric, and 144 terabytes of hard drive capacity. “The bottleneck is not the CPU any more,” explains Wuischpard. “It’s the I/O, the disk storage.”

He adds that Penguin’s systems were developed so that they could easily be retrofitted with the ARM board. And they come with “platinum-grade power supplies.”

Despite its professed confidence in the capabilities of its existing chips, Intel isn’t happy about the addition of ARM to Penguin’s lineup—or to anybody’s use of ARM chips in HPC systems. “ARM is a four-letter word to Intel,” chuckles Wuischpard. He says that when Penguin announced the UDX1, someone from Intel called to complain. “I was surprised they were so concerned about a company of our size. At Intel, this is deemed to be a sensitive subject.” 

Intel will obviously respond to this challenge. The interest in ARM will “force more innovation across the board,” he says. That’s especially true as more companies join the race. AMD, for example, just announced plans to sell ARM-based server processors in 2014, its first move away from the x86 architecture. But AMD, which bought microserver company SeaMicro earlier this year, is focused on the 64-bit generation, which ARM is supposed to have available for license by then. Currently, the ARM microservers are 32-bit systems. That gives Intel a chance to enter the race in the 64-bit class of hotrod microservers.

“Will ARM win?” ponders Wuischpard. He doesn’t yet know. “It will be an interesting battle. We wanted to get out in front of it.” The race will just get faster—and greener—from here on out.

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