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AMD says the future of the data center lies in ARM processors

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October 1, 2014

AMD says that the future of the data center lies in modern ARM processor architecture, and it's betting that servers based on 64-bit ARM v8 will be featured in server racks soon.

And to prove its point, AMD's Leendert van Doorn took to the stage at Oracle's JavaOne conference in San Francisco to demonstrate two ARM Cortex A57–based servers running Hadoop, marking the first time that's been done publicly.

Just to be clear, these weren't highly customized servers either. Instead, they were loaded with two different Linux distributions-– Red Hat and OpenSuse, with two different versions of the Linux 3.x kernel, and a recent test build of Oracle's standard Java Development Kit.

Van Doorn was joined onstage by Henrik Stahl, Oracle's Java Internet of Things man, who explained that getting Java running properly on 64-bit ARM servers was important for Oracle because something like 50 percent of all server workloads today run on the technology.

"Even though Oracle, for its own products, has very, very slow uptake – we don't adopt new technologies very quickly. We are very keen on enabling partners that come out with new technologies to be able to get a foothold in the market," Stahl said, "and Java enablement is the first step in that direction."

Stahl added that Oracle's Java for ARM is currently in private beta but a public early access version will ship later this year, with the goal of hitting general availability in the first half of 2015.

While there are still a few pieces missing, switching to ARM should be seamless for Java developers, he added.

"I don't see any reason why a developer using this technology would see anything different from running an x86 system," Stahl said.

However, what really makes ARM interesting for the server market, van Doorn said, is the prospect of application-optimized servers, where their hardware includes "accelerators" for specific workloads, something that hasn't really been economically feasible in the recent past.

These so-called accelerators might include special chips designed to speed up cryptography, networking, image processing, or any number of specific functions, van Doorn added and ARM's model makes them easy to integrate.

"The ARM ecosystem, because they have an open bus architecture and an open infrastructure, it's really easy for them to pick those accelerators up," he said. "I fully expect there will be a large number of startups doing fixed-function accelerators around all sorts of workloads, and some of them will be really interesting to integrate into an SoC."

One of the more common types of accelerator is a GPU, van Doorn said, which is really just a vector-processing unit. To illustrate how software can be tuned to work with accelerators, he pointed to AMD's work on HadoopCL, which offloads some Hadoop query processing to the GPU via OpenCL.

The Heterogeneous System Architecture (HSA) consortium – of which AMD, ARM, and Oracle are all members – is working to make it easier for chipmakers to adopt more types of accelerators, van Doorn said.

And because certain workloads – such as search – have become so important to companies operating massive-scale data centers, he added, the resulting chips will be cost effective.

"There are not just business trends that are driving there. There's also new technology trends," van Doorn observed, noting that simply producing faster general-purpose processors isn't as easy as it once was.

"The cost of actually producing denser silicon is going up, instead of going down," he was quick to point out.

Source: ARM Inc.

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