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Are Mobile Chips Strong-ARMing Their Way into Data Centers?

by on January 27, 2011

Once upon a time the mainframe was king of the data center. It lost its crown to the minicomputer. Then Unix servers came along to knock the minis off their throne. Now x86 servers reign supreme. The question is, for how long?

Strong-arm-chip “[T]he pace of innovation we have enjoyed in mobile phones and tablets is about to invade the conservative world of the data center and its more than 30 million servers,” declared Karl Freund and Barry Evans in a recent posting at GigaOM.

The pair make an interesting connection between hardware innovation using ARM processor architecture and open source software development. Open source has fed a spiral of innovation in the consumer electronics and information industries. By leveraging the work of others to deliver unique value, programmers have been able create an innovation spiral that’s growing “like a tornado.”

A similar cyclone is occurring in hardware. That’s because ARM, unlike chip giants Intel and AMD, licenses its processor technology to other semiconductor design firms. Those firms can then innovate with the technology. “[T]the ability to license ARM technology allows an entire ecosystem to build on the same basic design,” Freund and Evans explained.

That ecosystem has been able to introduce chips that are very power efficient. That’s a very important consideration these days for data center operators, since the cost of energy to run a center and the space to house its hardware now can equal or exceed the cost of the iron and its networking plant.

ARM servers could address both problems. They’d take up less space. And they’ll consume less energy. Clusters of ARM servers “will consume perhaps as little as 1/10th as much power to deliver comparable performance,” Freund and Evans maintained.

As in the electronics field, the ultimate winner of this new innovation cycle will be consumers. “The consumer ultimately wins, with lower cost pervasive information services available from great, big, green clouds powered by a little processor that could,” the authors declared.

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