ARM's chances of taking on Intel in the server market just got significantly better, with Facebook, AMD, Canonical and Red Hat joining an industry group to build up an ARM-compatible server ecosystem.
ARM's recently launched ARMv8 instruction set architecture, as found in the Cortex-A57 and Cortex-A53 chip designs
, fills in a lot of gaps that have previously prevented the firm from breaking out of the mobile market. The 32-bit ARMv7 architecture is replaced with a full 64-bit version, yet offers backwards-compatibility with 32-bit code, and performance-per-cycle is vastly improved over previous-generation chips.
For data centre users, that's something worth noting. As the focus shifts from a small number of users each doing complicated tasks, something at which high-performance but high-power chips from AMD and ARM excel, to a large number of users each doing simple tasks, the allure of low-power ARM chips is obvious. With the ability to fit many times more physical cores into the same space and power envelopes as x86 chips, it's no surprise to see companies paying attention to ARM's moves in this direction.
Hardware is useless without software, of course - and there ARM has a problem: the vast majority of enterprise software is compiled and optimised for x86 and x86-64 instruction set architectures. Although some Linux distributions include ARM-compatible ports, these are typically offered without commercial support - and if you're running custom code, you can expect to be left to port it yourself.
Without an ecosystem, any given processor architecture is dead in the water. ARM is strong in mobile, which is one of the reasons Intel is finding it difficult to break its own x86-based Atom designs into the market. In the data centre, however, x86 is king and ARM is relatively unknown.
To help build that ecosystem up, several major companies have joined the not-for-profit Linaro Enterprise Group previously founded by ARM and its licensees HiSilicon, Samsung and ST-Ericsson. Facebook, one of the biggest customers of data centre hardware, is among them, along with AMD - itself planning to launch server-centric ARM processors
under its Opteron branding - Applied Micro, Calxeda, Cavium and Marvell. Linux vendors Red Hat and Canonical - the company behind the popular Ubuntu distribution - are also to join the party.
The announcement comes hot on the heels of rumours that Microsoft is to extend its partnership with ARM into the server market, following its launch of the Windows 8-based Windows RT operating system with an ARMv8-compatible build of Windows Server - rumours that Microsoft itself has strongly denied.
Intel's Paul Otellini
, it seems, has reason to worry - and where the data centre leads, the desktop is sure to follow.