November 1, 2011 7:50 pm

HP to put Arm chips in servers

Hewlett-Packard has said it will begin making servers using chip designs from Arm Holdings from next year, the first time the UK company’s architecture will be used in traditional computer hardware in direct competition with Intel.

Arm’s low-power designs are used in most mobile phones, and in Apple’s iPad tablet computer. Until now they have not been considered powerful enough to run larger computers and servers. Intel and AMD, which use the x86 architecture for chips, have dominated the server market.

However, internet content companies such as Facebook, which run large data centres, are searching for low-power options for their servers as energy prices rise. This has driven HP to experiment with using Arm’s mobile phone technology.

“The physical and electrical power requirements are getting to such a scale that you need to look at alternatives. Customers are wrestling with the fact that energy costs are going in just one direction,” said David Chalmers, CTO of Servers, Storage and Networking HP UK.

“In London, getting enough power into a data centre inside the M25 is starting to be a constraining issue,” he added.

Large data centres can use as much power as a small city, and face additional costs and taxes associated with government carbon reduction targets. Many are looking for creative ways to reduce costs, with Facebook, for example, building a new data warehouse in Lapland because the location offers cheap hydroelectric power and the cold climate means less energy is needed to cool the computers.

Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial services group, is among the companies evaluating the new low-power servers.

“The volume of data processed in financial markets has increased exponentially, and traditional scale-up or scale-out architectures are struggling to keep up with demand without vastly increasing cost and power usage,” said Niall Dalton, director of high-frequency trading at Cantor Fitzgerald.

HP said the new servers, to be ready early next year, could use up to 90 per cent less energy and take up 94 per cent less space than current hardware. Mobile phone-style chips not only use less power, but they generate less heat, so servers can be built without bulky cooling fans and heat sinks.

HP will also be experimenting with using Intel’s low power chips, known as Atom, and chips from AMD. However, the Arm-based servers will be the first to be made, early next year.

Arm and Intel have started to compete more directly with each other over the past few years. Intel created the Atom chip as an attempt to break into the mobile phone market but has failed to gain any traction so far.

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