AMD ships delayed ARM server chips to a cautious market

With its new "Seattle" server chips now shipping in volume after a long delay, AMD hopes that it's coming into a market where there are fewer concerns about the ARM architecture in data centers.

The Opteron A1100 chips will power web servers, networking appliances and storage arrays. The chips are available in four- and eight-core variants, and packaged with networking and storage controllers.

AMD was supposed to ship Seattle last year, but ultimately the delay worked to its benefit because the ARM server market wasn't ready, said Dan Bounds, senior director of data center products and enterprise solutions at AMD. There's more awareness of the benefits of ARM servers today, and more software is available, but AMD knows it has a lot of work to do going forward, Bounds said.

A lack of software has hurt the adoption of ARM servers, but as Seattle comes to market there will be Linux-based operating systems, middleware, and KVM and Xen hypervisors available to run on them.

AMD will also ship a Seattle developer board, called HuskyBoard, for developing and testing applications, though it didn't provide a price or shipping date for that product.

AMD also plans custom ARM chips tuned for particular workloads, but that won't happen with the Seattle chips, Bounds said. AMD has talked about custom ARM server chips with its next CPU architecture code-named Zen, due out in the next year or two.

The ARM server market is in its infancy. Large scale data centers generally run on x86 chips, but ARM processors are viewed as a low-power alternative that could be efficient at running the standard LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP) stack for Web serving and cloud storage.

Some companies like Baidu, PayPal and Morgan Stanley are testing ARM servers on a limited basis. But changing an infrastructure from x86 to ARM is a large undertaking, and could require a lot of investment in hardware and software.

AMD's conservative approach to ARM servers didn't surprise Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

Some ARM chip servers like Cavium and AppliedMicro are ahead of AMD, and have a leg up in dealing with server makers, Brookwood said. HP currently offers an AppliedMicro chip in its Moonshot server.

AMD could resurrect relationships with server makers buying x86 products, but they need to be convinced to add ARM servers, Brookwood said.

Outside of HP, no major server makers offers an ARM server. Lenovo and Dell are testing systems and gauging customer interest. Lenovo will come out with an ARM server if there's substantial interest, the company's chief technology officer Peter Hortensius said in an interview with the IDG News Service last week.

The first AMD-based ARM server will come from SoftIron, which is selling a system called Overdrive. AMD is working with Beaconworks on a storage system, and Foxconn-backed Caswell on a network-function virtualization system.

It hasn't been an easy road for ARM server chip makers, and AMD will have its struggles in the face of competition, Brookwood said. Pioneer Calxeda shut down after running out of cash and Samsung quit after it saw ARM servers not being a viable market. Qualcomm has announced ARM server chips and Amazon said it will sell ARM-based chips for media servers and storage and networking equipment.

The Opteron A1100 server chips will be priced in the range of US$150 and deliver performance equivalent to Intel's Atom server chip, Bounds said. The last Atom C-series chips were introduced in 2013.

The top-line Opteron A1170 runs at a clock speed of 2.0GHz while the A1150 is 1.7GHz. The chips draw 32 watts of power, have 4MB of L2 cache, 8MB of L3 cache and support DDR3 and DDR4 memory. Theychips have eight PCI-Express Gen3 lanes, two 10-gigabit Ethernet ports, and 14 SATA 3 storage ports. They also have a co-processor that handles authentication and encryption.

Agam Shah

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