AMD touts its newer, low-power ARM chips, while Intel contends x86 remains the go-to chipset for the cloud.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

June 20, 2013

5 Min Read

Is the aging x86 instruction set the right one for the future? At the GigaOm Structure 2013 show Wednesday, proponents of different chip architectures staged the latest version of this ongoing debate. Structure is an eight-year old show meant to showcase the latest technologies and trends.

AMD general manager Andrew Feldman said AMD has bet on ARM becoming the chip architecture of the future in cloud data centers, as well as client devices where it already predominates. "In 60 years of the computer industry, smaller, lower-cost components have always won out over more expensive ones. In the future we believe it's going to be the ARM processor," he said. Furthermore, ARM will occupy smaller, simpler "single-socket servers" that will be used to build out cloud data centers and ready to deliver services to a compatible ARM processor on millions of mobile devices.

The x86 instruction set was designed for personal computers and has grown into the role of power servers. But "the mentality that one size fits all" is colliding with new conditions, warned Feldman. "The cloud does the compute work for the client," and therefore ARM-based servers are being built through the HP Moonshot project or SeaMicro SM 1500 servers.

Two thirds of the people in the world still lack access to the Internet. They'll get it, not through desktops and laptops, but through phones powered by ARM chips. In 2012, eight billion ARM CPUs were manufactured and sold, or 20 times the volume of x86 chips, he said.

[ Want to learn more about HP's Moonshot servers? See HP Plans Low Power Servers Using Calxeda ARM. ]

Jason Waxman, VP and general manager of Intel's cloud platforms group, got comments from his two panelists, Microsoft general manager Thomas Pfenning and Zhang Lei, director of system architecture at Alibaba Group, China's giant e-commerce firm, that they were thriving on x86 servers.

Microsoft's president of servers and tools, Satya Nadella, declined to be drawn directly into the debate. When his turn on the stage came, he noted Microsoft's cloud data centers and cloud applications were running on x86 Windows Server. But he also noted Microsoft has ported Windows to ARM. "We have Windows devices on ARM," he added.

Pressed by Om Malik, founder of GigaOm, a San Francisco technology research and news firm, to pick ARM or x86, Nadella refused to be cornered. "It's premature to declare one form of deployment the winner here ... We'll see."

VMware CEO Pat Gelsinger, himself a veteran of Intel x86 chip architecture, was less circumspect. When his turn on the stage came, he told Malik that consumer-based PC action "has moved to the edges of the network" on mobile devices. "Clearly we don't see that coming back," he conceded. Client/server has given way to cloud/mobile. But within that new infrastructure architecture, the cloud data center tends to be based on x86 servers "and the mobile is ARM. We don't see that changing. There's not a 10X advantage in trading x86 for ARM," and therefore the present division of responsibility between the two chipsets is likely to last a long time.

VMware, of course, has built a highly successful product line based on its ability to virtualize the x86 instruction set.

On another topic, JR Rivers, founder and CEO of Cumulus Networks, said he understood the rigidity inherent in network switches and routers that each have their own proprietary operating system, such as Cisco's IOS or Juniper's Junos. Buy a mix of vendor equipment and get a mix of network operating systems, multiplying the difficulties in changing your network in a flexible or dynamic manner.

That's the main reason networking has lagged behind servers and storage as a resource that can be virtualized and handed out to users who provision themselves through an orchestration system. Rivers said he found himself looking for the "Linux of network operating systems," and realized that Linux itself could fill the role. Co-founder Nolan Leake reached the same conclusion. So the pair founded Cumulus to produce a networking-oriented version of the open source operating system.

"Linux is the Linux of network operating systems. We offer a Linux distribution that is very networking focused," said Rivers. It also includes open source code useful for configuration management and system deployment, such as Chef and Puppet.

In another interview, Werner Vogels, CTO of Amazon Web Services, was asked by GigaOm research director Jo Maitland whether some customers were establishing a system on AWS's EC2, then moving it back in-house after a period of use there, as Zynga did with its online game infrastructure. Allan Leinwand, who at the time was director of infrastructure services at Zynga, told InformationWeek in May 2011 that the firm relied on Amazon for 80% of its infrastructure. Between 2011 and 2012, Zynga flipped that ratio to 80% of the infrastructure operated in-house as the zCloud, and 20% on Amazon, Leinwand said in February 2012.

Asked why Zynga did that, Vogels said: "You'd have to talk to the Zynga guys. It's not a pattern we're seeing coming back anywhere else."

Vogels said he would know about other such instances if they were occurring because it would be understood that it should be reported up to him. "We want know about that so we can learn from it, learn the cause," he said.

In the same interview, Vogels was asked whether Amazon will open more international sites, in addition to Europe, Brazil, Japan, Australia and Singapore. Amazon has nine data center locations around the world, counting two U.S. West locations in Oregon and California; U.S. East in Ashburn, Va., and GovCloud, also in Oregon.

Vogels said Amazon has been asked to build facilities in many countries around the world. Large users would like to have Amazon facilities as close to their operations as possible. "Everyone wants Amazon everywhere ... We continue to evaluate those requests," he said. Rather than open major general-purpose data centers, it may consider opening GovCloud look-alikes in other countries, what he called "community clouds or members-only, gated clouds."

But he kept a non-committal air throughout his remarks, and it seemed unlikely Amazon will announce a major community cloud expansion any time soon.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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