Arm-ing to save power---Doug Mohney
Microsoft's Windows 8 latest blog posting blessing ARM would appear to be more about PCs and the future of Windows than data centers, but the company's push of ARM hardware has long-term implications for the IT world in terms of energy consumption and pushing Intel on price and power per watt.
For years, ARM has been "the other chip" in an Intel-dominated world. The family of ARM-based processors has steadily made progress in edge network and portable devices -- smartphones and tablets -- with an occasional dalliance in servers. This year, a number of name brand companies have started to more aggressively roll out ARM for the data center, including Dell, HP and Samsung. Dell showed off its "Copper" ARM server chassis and sleds in May, HP is working with Calxeda to develop an energy-efficient server platform and Samsung is developing a low-power ARM server chip for release in 2014.
The biggest hindrance for ARM has been its lag to join the 64-bit world in order to address larger data center applications. ARM Holdings -- the owner of the licensable chip architecture -- announced its ARMv8 architecture back in October 2011 and manufactures are working towards a 2014 data to get the 64-bit chip into consumer and server "prototypes."
Enter Microsoft with its big love kiss to ARM with its Windows RT tablets and PCs. Microsoft first got the geek world wound up with its Surface Tablet, available in a low-cost/low-power ARM configuration and a higher-end, more expensive Intel-based product capable of running the full suite of Windows 8 applications. Windows RT is expressly written for the ARM-i-tecture family, fostering a full ecosystem of non-Intel CPUs that can run the same Microsoft operating system.
The August 13 Windows 8 blog posting discusses a new generation of PCs built around the ARM platform, with some very provoking statistics. A small form-factor netbook-like laptop in "early production range" could have a 10.1" to 11.6" touch screen capable of 8 to 13 hours of playback runtime with a whopping 320 hours to 409 hours of "connected standby" running time, where a device could go from "off" to a full start in seconds, rather than hours of boot time.
One key takeaway here is that more ARM devices mean more support and more programmers which translates into faster apps and development on the server side. Another is that "Fear the ARM" will drive Intel into being more aggressive on price and development, fine-tuning its chips to be more energy efficient to match ARM current and future benchmarks.
Finally, Windows RT opens up some interesting thinking for the data center world. Everyone is keen on virtualization and being able to move processes between servers in various schemes. An "instant-on" server a la Windows RT, consuming extremely low power when not use and brought on line to full capacity as usage surges, could be a powerful tool for green data centers in the future.