Will 2011 See An Earthquake Hit The Server Manufacturers?

We’ve heard many predictions over the years about the impending death of Microsoft, Intel, AMD, and other big players in the computing world. There’s always some new technology on the horizon that could be a game changer. In most cases the new technology is over hyped, and never meets the expectations that the Public Relations people push. Still writers like myself continue to follow these new technologies. We have to. It’s never possible to be certain whether the new development is going to be a disruptive technology, or a flash in the pan (the term ‘a flash in the pan’ goes back to a primitive firing technology used on early guns – sometimes it would burn (flash) without igniting the gunpowder in the firing chamber, and thus the gun would not fire).

A recent article from Semi-Accurate is about the possible adoption of one potentially disruptive technology. Apparently there is a rumor going around that FaceBook is considering using ARM processors in their new Oregon Data Center.

Currently commodity (inexpensive) servers use the X86 architecture, which is the same basic architecture used in most personal computers, including those made by Dell, HP, Apple, Acer, ASUS, etc. For those without a technical background, servers ‘SERVE’ data, whether to websites, or directly to personal computers, or to other servers. Companies like Facebook or Google can require tens of thousands of servers to run their websites. Even using very inexpensive hardware, the costs for a large website can be incredible, so large sites like these are always looking for better (less expensive) options.

X86 technology has changed a lot since the first X86 chips were introduced in 1978. Over the years developments have lead to faster and faster processors, better power management, expanded capabilities, etc. Attempts to develop competing architectures such as the Itanium, have floundered on the rocks due to the massive popularity of the X86 processors. While the X86 technology has had, and still has, a lot of issues, it works, there’s a wide range of available software for it, and, well, change is disruptive. For many people changing to another technology just isn’t worth the risk.

At the same time, the ARM series of processors has also been a success. While it isn’t used in desktop computers, there are a few NetBooks built on the ARM platform. But where ARM really shines is in Cell Phones and other portable devices where low power consumption is a necessity. Virtually every Smart Phone in existence uses an ARM core of some sort, including the IPhone, and all of the Android phones. Apple’s IPad also uses an ARM core, as do a lot of other portable devices. Like the X86 architecture, the ARM architecture is continually evolving.

While older ARM processors were just not capable enough to be used in servers or personal computers, the ARM architecture has been evolving at a fast pace, and if it has evolved to the point where it is economically feasible to use it in servers, it could be a real game changer.

The reason why ARM is so intriguing as a server core is power usage. If the low power requirements of the ARM design could be used in servers, it could hugely impact the bottom line of large server users. Facebook uses a lot of servers, and their electricity costs are a significant portion of the company’s cost structure. Using ARM processor based servers could cut those costs dramatically, assuming that the newer ARM processors are suitable for use in servers. This would hurt Intel, the biggest manufacturer of X86 processors, badly.

It would also have negative implications for Microsoft. Microsoft Windows is X86 specific. While Microsoft at one time did offer versions for other processors, they no longer do so, and it would be extremely difficult to make it work on ARM. The operating system that Microsoft does offer for ARM, Windows Mobile, is unsuitable for use in servers (it was originally designed as a competitor to Palm OS, and later modified to become a Cell Phone OS).

Currently Facebook is using a modified Linux/Apache system, like almost all large websites on the net. The Linux kernel already runs on the ARM processors (Android phones uses a modified Linux system). Apache, the most widely used server software, would be relatively easy to port to the ARM architecture. There are no technological blocks to moving to ARM for Facebook (or for that matter, Google), assuming that ARM can handle the workload.

So the question is, has ARM evolved enough to make it feasible for Facebook to switch? I don’t know. If it has though, it could conceivably cause a shakeup of epic proportions.

Regards

Wayne Borean

Monday August 30, 2010

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