Inside Advanced Scale Challenges|Friday, October 20, 2017
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Is Second Generation the Charm for ARM? 

(Elena11/Shutterstock)

A new front in the heretofore Intel-dominated battle to deliver processing power to the datacenter opened this week when Microsoft and Cavium Inc., the ARM server processor specialist, announced they are collaborating on running Azure cloud workloads on Cavium's ARM-based server processor.

Separately, Microsoft said Wednesday (March 8) it is also collaborating with mobile chipmaker Qualcomm Inc. (NASDAQ: QCOM) on an ARM-based Windows Server design. The pair of announcements represents a significant shift by the cloud provider toward ARM processors that have previously failed to make much headway in datacenters dominated by x86-based servers from Intel Corp.

Cavium (NASDAQ: CAVM) said the collaboration with Microsoft involves "evaluating and enabling" Azure cloud workloads running on its ARM-based ThunderX2 "datacenter" processor. The partners also said they are demonstrating web services on an open-source version of Windows Server used internally to run cloud workloads on ThunderX2.

The server processor is Cavium's second-generation 64-bit ARMv8 system-on-chip design intended for cloud, datacenter and HPC applications. While the first generation of ARM-based processors have made few inroads in the datacenter, proponents maintain that second-generation designs are gaining traction with endorsements from leading cloud providers such as Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT).

Executives at San Jose-based Cavium argued that early datacenter deployments of its first generation of its ARM-based processor helped seed an ecosystem of ARM partners. "We see the second generation products helping to drive a tipping point for ARM server deployment across a mainstream set of volume applications," Gopal Hegde, general manager of Cavium's Data Center Processor Group, asserted in a statement announcing the collaboration with Microsoft.

“Intel’s 60%+ gross margins are a juicy target," said Richard Windsor, analyst at Edison Investment Research. "To date, Intel has been able to brush aside any threat to its dominance in processors for the data centre, but with Microsoft deciding to port Windows Server and Azure to ARM, the threat is back. The data centre has long been the saviour of Intel’s financial performance, it has been supporting the company as the legacy PC business has been going through its rough patch. ARM has taken pot shots at the data centre before with semiconductor makers announcing chips, but this has never gotten off the ground."

Windsor said the key reason for this is the need to port applications to ARM-based servers.

"Until now, no one has been willing to do this," he said. "This is why the demonstration of Windows Server running on the ARM based Qualcomm Centriq 2400 is so significant. If this can be shown to run with similar performance characteristics to Intel, then it would make a lot of sense for Microsoft to begin migrating its servers over. There are some signs of this already and Hewlett Packard mentioned weakness in a large customer on its most recent earnings call which is widely believed to have been Microsoft. However, this solution is still internal only to Microsoft and we doubt that it will be willing to take any risks until it is sure that it can work just as well as Intel.

The partnership stems from development of an internal version of Windows Server that supports the 64-bit ARM architecture. Cavium and Microsoft also have been working on a server platform based on the software giant's Project Olympus, described as a next generation open source hyper-scale cloud hardware design. The partners are demonstrating the ThunderX-based Windows server running cloud workloads during this week's Open Compute Summit.

The demonstrations are "the result of an extensive long term collaboration between the two companies," the partners noted.

Microsoft’s Project Olympus platform integrates two ThunderX2 processors in a dual socket configuration. The ThunderX2 system-on-chip integrates multiple custom ARMv8-A cores along with IO connectivity to the Azure cloud.

Meanwhile, Microsoft also announced this week during the Open Compute Project Summit in Santa Clara (the headquarters of Intel) it is working with wireless chipmaker Qualcomm on an ARM-based Windows Server. Qualcomm's second-generation ARM processor called Centriq 2400 also is being integrated into the Project Olympus datacenter design.

Several chipmakers including Intel (NASDAQ: INTC) are contributing to Project Olympus.

Kushagra Vaid, general manager of Microsoft Azure hardware infrastructure, noted in a recent blog post that the project "applies a model of open source collaboration that has been embraced for software but has historically been at odds with the physical demands of developing hardware.

"We’re taking a very different approach by contributing our next generation cloud hardware designs when they [about 50 percent] complete," Vaid added.

 

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 25 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as Executive Editor for Electronic Engineering Times.

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