Cavium’s 64-bit ARM processors for servers coming in the fall

In an effort to lower data centre energy costs a number of microprocessor manufacturers are creating server chips using architectures from ARM Ltd., whose designs are found in chips powering smart phones and tablets.

The latest is Cavium Inc., which today said its ThunderX family of CPUs, which are 64-bit 2.5 GHz processors using ARMv8 system on  a chip design with 24 to 48 cores, will be available for server, storage and networking manufacturers early in the fourth quarter.

The announcement follows AMD’s demonstration of its upcoming 64-bit ARM-based Opteron A-Series processor, promised to ship by the end of the year.

Backers of the ARM designs argue it is more efficient at specific workloads than x86 processors from Intel and AMD, which use CISC (complex instruction set computing) architecture. ARM uses RISC (reduced instruction set computing), which supporters say uses simpler instructions for better efficiency. The 64-bit design is what makes the ARMv8 chips

“The ARM ecosystem is radically expanding the realms of possibility for cloud and data center infrastructure,” Cavium CEO Simon Segars said in a statement. “ThunderX is an innovative implementation of the ARMv8-A architecture. Together with ARM’s Server Based System Architecture standard, it will accelerate the deployment of workload-optimized ARM-based systems and transform the pace of innovation in the data center.”

Nathan Brookwood, a microprocessor analyst and research fellow at Insight 64, said in an interview that the advantages of ARM processors have been muted so far because the chips only supported a 32-bit architecture that didn’t support enough memory to make them interesting. the ARMv8 64-bit architecture will change that — but by how much isn’t known.

Because of a lack of packaged software that can run on the ARM architecture, few enterprises will buy ARM-powered servers. Instead, initially companies and cloud service providers that write their own software will be the most interested, Brookwood said. Hadoop can run on 32-bit ARM processors and it is expected it will be ported to the 64-bit architecture. However, there’s no support yet for popular databases like Microsoft’s SQL Server, IBM DB2 or Oracle.

Cavium makes a number of processors used in enterprise and carrier equipment including the Octeon family of multi-core MIPS64 CPUs found in routers, switches and unified threat management appliances; Octeon Fusion processors for cellular base stations; Nitrox security processors for network security appliances; and Neuron processors for Layer 2-4 network search applications.

The ThunderX  processors include four DDR3/4 72-bit memory controllers capable of supporting 2400 MHz memories with 1 TB of memory in a dual socket configuration, the company said. Some also include the capability for low-latency Ethernet fabric interconnectivity and monitoring for virtualized networks.

There are four processors in the family:

The ThunderX_CP for Web servers, content delivery servers and Web caching; the ThunderX_ST, which includes hardware accelerators for Hadoop, block and object storage and distributed file storage workloads; the Thunder_SC for security appliances; and the Thunder_NT for media servers, scale-out embedded applications and network virtualization workloads.

There’s also a ThunderX CN87xx line of single socket CPUs with 8 to 16 cores for servers with application workloads such as cold storage, distributed content delivery and dedicated hosting.

Cavium also said a number of companies are working to certify their products with ThunderX, including Oracle (which will port JavaSE 8), the Linux Fedora Project, the openSUSE Community, and Citrix’s Xen virtualization.

A number of server makers already use low-power chips in some products. Hewlett-Packard’s Moonshot line, for example, includes server cartridges using Intel’s Atom S1260 processors. Atom CPUs are often found in netbooks, but the S1260 is designed for servers.

While the logic of putting low-power processors into servers makes sense in an era of cloud computing where data centres are only increasing in size, it isn’t a sure thing. Calxeda one of the first companies to announce an ARM server chip, closed in December. According to one report it ran out of money after initially raising US$100 million.

However, Brookwood noted Calxeda’s chips had 32-bit architectures.

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Howard Solomon
Howard Solomon
Currently a freelance writer, I'm the former editor of and Computing Canada. An IT journalist since 1997, I've written for several of ITWC's sister publications including and Computer Dealer News. Before that I was a staff reporter at the Calgary Herald and the Brampton (Ont.) Daily Times. I can be reached at hsolomon [@]

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