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Dell launches ARM-based server range

Dell launches ARM-based server range

Dell's new Copper servers pack up to 48 ARM system-on-chip processors into 3U of rack space, but they're not ready for a mainstream release just yet.

Dell has confirmed its plans to launch a family of servers based on the ARM instruction set architecture, starting with a limited roll-out for testing purposes.

The Dell Copper systems feature a 3U rack-mount chassis packed with up to 48 Marvell Armada system-on-chip processors based on ARMv7 with a 64-bit memory interface but a 32-bit local bus. The chips are mounted on sleds of up to four chips, with twelve sleds per system. Each SoC forms a self-contained server, with each sled featuring a dedicated gigabit Ethernet connection to a non-blocking L2 switch for inter-server communication.

While Dell's design is impressive, it's hardly the first: HP recently announced its own ARM server initiative under Project Moonshot, while microserver companies have been investigating ARM-based chips alongside Intel's low-power Atom range for many-core servers for years.

It's not until the introduction of 64-bit ARM IP - previously limited by design to 32-bit implementations - this year that the server market has sat up to take notice. While unable to compete on a raw speed level with chips from the likes of AMD and Intel, ARM server processors promise much for highly-parallel low-intensity tasks such as powering web-based applications with numerous simultaneous users.

Thanks to their low power draw and high efficiency, ARM-based servers promise much for data centre tasks where raw power isn't key. Growing power costs mean data centres bleed cash in the form of electricity bills and heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) costs. Chips that reduce the power draw and heat output are, therefore, of great interest in the industry.

For British chip design giant ARM, it's a major shift back to the early days of the company. Back when it was still known as Acorn RISC Machines, ARM's first chips were used in desktop and server computers including the BBC Micro (as an add-on secondary processor) and the Acorn Archimedes and RISC PC families.

The increasing popularity of the x86 instruction set followed by the explosion in low-cost PCs running Microsoft's MS-DOS and Windows operating systems put paid to the company's efforts in this direction, however. These days, ARM licences its low-power chip designs for use in tablets, smartphones and embedded systems - but hasn't exactly kept its desire to take US rival Intel on in the data centre and desktop markets a secret.

Dell's announcement of ARM-based servers is a major validation of the company's belief in its products as a solution in the data centre, but isn't quite a blanket approval: Dell is shipping limited quantities of the Copper systems to selected customers, including developers at Canonical and Cloudera who will work on a software infrastructure for the servers. General availability, then, is still some time away.

9 Comments

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BLC 31st May 2012, 14:05 Quote
ARM for all!

I've always been a bit of a fan of RISC architecture; it always seemed to make more efficient use of clock cycles compared to x86. ARM-powered servers will be a godsend for power consumption and heat, not to mention space. One of these 48-core machines could easily be virtualised into multiple different virtual servers. I realise that you can do that with x86 machines, but the ARM version would use much less power. The article doesn't state how fast each core is, but I know the Cortex A15 can be pretty speedy. Allocate 4 cores per virtual server and - in theory - you've suddenly got one system providing 12 servers.

Any word on what the clock speed of the individual cores are, or what sort of cooling they need? It would be a pretty incredible prospect if they can survive high-load situations with passive cooling.
Gareth Halfacree 31st May 2012, 14:17 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by BLC
Any word on what the clock speed of the individual cores are, or what sort of cooling they need? It would be a pretty incredible prospect if they can survive high-load situations with passive cooling.
1.6GHz - they're Armada XP 78460 quad-core chips.
BLC 31st May 2012, 14:24 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by Gareth Halfacree
1.6GHz - they're Armada XP 78460 quad-core chips.

Wait...what? Quad-core chips? So one of these machines fully-packed with 48 SoCs has 192 processing cores available?

The mind boggles.

Again, yes I know you can do that with an x86 server, but I doubt that would fit in 3U. Plus an x86 server with 48 processors would eat gigawatts of power before it's even spent two minutes booting.
BLC 31st May 2012, 14:39 Quote
Just found some more info on The Register when googling that chip. Apparently each sled, or server node, consumes 15W under peak load; it doesn't state whether that includes the hard disk power consumption, but assuming it does that equates to a total of 180W draw across 12 sleds at peak load. That's less than a PC from 5 years ago - hell, even 10 years ago. Not to put too fine a point on it, but...F*** ME!
ch424 1st June 2012, 10:43 Quote
Quote:
processors based on ARM's Cortex-A15 'Eagle' IP in a 64-bit implementation

This is completely wrong. They're Marvell ARMADA-XP, not Cortex-A15. And they're ARMv7 so definitely not 64-bit either.
Gareth Halfacree 1st June 2012, 10:48 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by ch424
This is completely wrong. They're Marvell ARMADA-XP, not Cortex-A15. And they're ARMv7 so definitely not 64-bit either.
My mistake: they have a 64-bit memory bus, but a 32-bit local bus - I just saw "64-bit." I'll correct the piece. The Cortex-A15 confusion came from Dell's less-than-clear press release in which it singularly failed to actually mention what chip it was using - you'd think if it really wanted to be seen as leading in a brave new market, it'd make a bit more information available at launch...
BLC 1st June 2012, 11:02 Quote
Regardless of the specific chip being used, it's still a pretty damn tasty prospect.
ch424 1st June 2012, 11:51 Quote
Yeah, looks awesome! As you said, 192 cores in 3U!

Gareth, the Armada XP is the chip - Armada XP is a core, just like each of the Cortex series and the Scorpion/Krait CPUs in Qualcomm products. Good job on the fix - it's great that bit-tech does corrections, loads of websites are happy to fire and forget with news articles!
Gareth Halfacree 1st June 2012, 12:48 Quote
Quote:
Originally Posted by ch424
Gareth, the Armada XP is the chip - Armada XP is a core, just like each of the Cortex series and the Scorpion/Krait CPUs in Qualcomm products. Good job on the fix - it's great that bit-tech does corrections, loads of websites are happy to fire and forget with news articles!
I realise that - but Dell's original launch announcement completely fails to name the chip or even the manufacturer - it just says ARM with no other details. I found out it was an Armada chip from Marvell itself and posted the update in the comments - but forgot I'd written Cortex-A15 in the article!

I'm always happy to update pieces if there's a mistake or new information - it does nobody any good to have misleading our outdated information published. That's the trouble with the web - everything lives forever..
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