Server vendors tap ARM chips to give users alternative to Intel

ARM reaches beyond mobile stronghold to hit lucrative server market

For a while it was hard to get your hands on an ARM server, but that may not be the case soon.

Five computer makers have announced servers with ARM processors that will challenge x86 systems in the mainstream market. The systems are largely for Internet and cloud workloads and have the 48-core Cavium ThunderX chip, which is based on 64-bit ARM architecture.

The servers from Gigabyte, Inventec, Wistron, Penguin Computing and E4 Computer Engineering are based on designs commonly used in x86 servers, but have ARM processors. An interesting twist in some new servers is the ability to also use Nvidia's Tesla graphics processors, adding extra processing punch for graphics, engineering and other high-performance computing applications.

The systems largely have one or two sockets, and play to different strengths. For example, Gigabyte's systems can be configured with up to 24 2.5-inch hard drives, making it particularly suitable for Web serving or storage. Penguin Computing's upcoming 19-inch Valkre system -- which will ship in 2016 -- is targeted at high-performance computing and can be configured with SSDs and different I/O technologies. Wistron's WV-S7224-10 and WV-A7424-10 are 2U and 4U storage servers, respectively. All of the servers have shared power and cooling resources.

Pricing for the servers was not immediately available. The servers were announced at the Supercomputing 15 conference in Austin, Texas, this week.

Most of the companies announcing ARM servers can make and supply servers to buyers directly, eliminating the middleman traditionally involved in the selling process. Wistron and Inventec are also making their mark as server vendors in China.

ARM develops and licenses its processor architecture and is best known for its mobile chips. Some believe the power efficiency derived from the mobile chips could translate to low-power ARM servers. But up to now only a few systems have been available, with the most notable being Hewlett Packard Enterprise's Moonshot.

The new servers could be the shot in the arm that ARM needs to make a serious push for the server market. Chip makers are struggling to generate profits with mobile and PC chips, since margins are thin for those systems, so servers could be a lucrative alternative for vendors using ARM-architecture chips. AMD plans to offer both x86- and ARM-architecture chips as it rebuilds its server product line.

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