• 01/30/2014
    10:35 AM
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Open-Source Cloud Hardware Grows Up Fast

Open Compute Project picks up key new members, sets more ambitious goals, and shows its multi-faceted, multi-chip side at annual summit.

Several new members of the OCP Foundation were announced at the summit. Microsoft's presence adds another big x86 hardware user, possibly making OCP seem more of an organization with "Intel inside," but open-source hardware is in actuality a chip-agnostic movement.

Gathering in the wings of the fifth annual OCP Summit was a powerful alliance of ARM-device manufacturers. The ARM chip is found in many mobile devices and is noted for its low power consumption. While normally competitors, the ARM manufacturers agreed to unite behind a shared specification for datacenter servers. The Server Base System Architecture will force ARM server makers to concentrate on value-added features to a standard server. Software developers will then be able to produce applications for a broad range of servers, built on a common hardware base. The aim of the architecture is to prevent developers from having to port their applications to each manufacturer. If it succeeds, it's likely to greatly increase the number of applications available to run on ARM as it emerges as a server CPU.

Ian Drew, ARM's CMO, said in a keynote session Wednesday that he had to "knock heads together" to get the likes of HP, Applied Micro, Dell, Citrix, HP, and Cavium to agree to follow the architecture. But they, along with Linaro and Canonical, which port open-source software to ARM, have agreed to do so. Intel's dominance of the x86 space and, consequently, cloud servers, has prompted the ARM manufacturers to compete less with each other and confront the threat that Intel dominance represents to them.

Drew predicted that ARM manufacturers will produce the servers that populate the cloud datacenters of the future due to their smaller footprints, energy efficiency, and compatibility with mobile devices.

Andrew Feldman, corporate VP of AMD, said in a keynote Tuesday: "By 2019, ARM will command 25% of the server market," and custom ARM CPUs or purpose-designed ARM chips "will be the norm for mega-datacenters," such as those used by Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon.

AMD announced Tuesday that it has produced its first 64-bit ARM motherboard, Seattle, for use in such servers. ARM has had an extremely limited presence in the datacenter because ARM chips have been largely 32-bit designs. Feldman also acknowledged that the ecosystem of software developers for ARM "is in its gangly youth" compared to the mature x86 software market.

Andy Bechtolsheim, a founder of Sun Microsystems, now CEO of high-performance switch developer Arista, scoffed at earlier predictions that 32-bit ARM chips would gain market share. Rather, 64-bit chips and better development tools and software development kits from manufacturers could start to turn that around. Meanwhile, Intel will drive down x86 chips' power consumption in its relentless drive to put x86 into all kinds of servers and devices.

Feldman was unfazed. "AMD will be a leader in ARM servers," he predicted, and will find itself, like Intel, part of an expanding universe.

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek, having joined the publication in 2003. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld, and former technology editor of Interactive Week.

Find out how a government program is putting cloud computing on the fast track to better security. Also in the Cloud Security issue of InformationWeek.

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