Dell unveils hyperscale server prototype with both x86 and 64-bit ARM processors, and management software that remotely controls the chips from a single console.
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Amid growing speculation that the company is on the verge of going private, Dell at last week's Open Compute Summit in Santa Clara, Calif., unveiled a new server prototype that allows both 64-bit ARM processors to be installed on the same motherboard as traditional x86 chips. The company also demonstrated management software based on the Open Compute Project standard that allows both processer varieties to be remotely controlled from a single console.
The prototype, named Iron, is the newest in Dell's exploration of ARM-based servers for the hyperscale data center market. The architecture has drawn interest for its potential to offer energy-efficient processing of high-volume Web requests, such as are typical in search or social networking applications.
Copper, the company's previous iteration, supported 32-bit processing and four ARM servers per board. Iron improves on these specs via AppliedMicro's x-Gene chip, which not only pushes to 64-bit computational power but also increases the number of nodes per board to six.
Tracy Davis, VP and general manager of Dell's Data Center Solutions group, said in an interview that Dell entered the hyperscale market six years ago because "we were really not serving big deployment, Web 2.0 customers well." He said the introduction of 64-bit processing offers "an interesting balance between power and I/O" through which "customers can start growing." A market-ready version of Iron hasn't been announced but Davis said advances like those in the prototype could begin to make waves in 2014 or 2015.
Drew Schulke, Dell's global marketing director for data center solutions, said that the ability to run ARM and x86 chips in a single chassis will allow companies that run large data farms to nimbly scale operations. He explained that the presentation layer in typical Web 2.0 architectures is well-suited for lightweight, ARM-fueled servers. "Serving up Web pages, ARM is great," he said. "You're not taxing floating point, you don't have massive amounts of memory."
Other parts of the stack, such as the memory cache layer, "are probably going to stay on x86," he said, but ARM is still about more than delivering Web content. "For big data, ARM starts to get interesting, the capability of each core, how many spindles you can drive off that," he said.
Schulke also mentioned the cost savings offered by the chips, which have traditionally consumed less energy than x86 options. "For someone like Facebook, which is growing out new data centers every month, the cost saving is not trivial," he said.
As for the management software, Jim Pike, chief architect and technologist for Dell's data center solutions group, wrote in a blog post that "any differences in messages, numberings, payloads, commands, responses, event/alert/log data, or remote management conventions" can create "mayhem" when an administrator is scaling to thousands of multisource machines. In an interview, he explained that the open-source software provides a "known, common response from either" type of chip, saving IT staffers from having to decipher different types of behavior on the fly.
Dell's high-level intentions already are open to conjecture, thanks to the stock price losses it has suffered in the last year and the evolving, perhaps consequent, rumors of an imminent buyout. Even so, Davis said that Dell's server business, including the hyperscale line, has only continued to grow.
Wherever Dell ends up with investors, the hyperscale market is likely to become more competitive. Hewlett-Packard, for example, has been elbowing into the space with its Project Moonshot.
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