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There has been a decent amount of chatter on all the media channels over some of Facebook’s efforts to move forward with innovative technology. The other day I wrote about its new “green” European data center based in Sweden. In addition, at the recent Open Compute Project Summit, Facebook announced its intention to contribute to greater standardization at the system level for data center server and hardware equipment. For some, minimizing heat and energy consumption is as high a priority as performance.

A potential competitor to Facebook is emerging in HP, who is launching a new effort Project Moonshot. HP intends to utilize this program to develop:

…a new server development platform, “customer discovery lab” and partner ecosystem brought together with the purpose of reducing the complexity and energy consumption of environments that have thousands of servers along with all the network, storage, power, cooling and management technologies needed to support them.

But Facebook as a player in the world of enterprise IT is a newbie. Data centers are not their primary focus. So while HP may butt heads with them, their real game appears to be Intel.

As part of Project Moonshot, HP has launched a collaborative effort with Texas-based company Calxeda to utilize ARM-based processors in its data center servers. Calxeda, a chip and processor maker, is banking on its new EnergyCore ARM system-on-chip (SoC) for cloud servers.

At first glance, Calxeda’s SOC looks like something you’d find inside a smartphone, but the product is essentially a complete server on a chip, minus the mass storage and memory. The company puts four of these EnergyCore SoCs onto a single daughterboard, called an EnergyCard, which is a reference design that also hosts four DIMM slots and four SATA ports. A systems integrator would plug multiple daughterboards into a single mainboard to build a rack-mountable unit, and then those units could be linked via Ethernet into a system that can scale out to form a single system that’s home to some 4096 EnergyCore processors (or a little over 1,000 four-processor EnergyCards).

For HP, they are looking to use this opportunity to raise the competition bar with Intel. But Intel holds over 80% of the global processor and chip market (90% of the worldwide server chip space.) HP and Calxeda are in for a fight.

Looking at the specs, Calxeda’s processor does have some things going for it. The EnergyCore design supports Ubuntu’s lightweight, container-based LXC virtualization scheme for system management. Calxeda attempts to maximize server efficiency not by traditional virtualization but rather “physicalization:” filling up empty rack space with the EnergyCards (each running 4 EnergyCore processors.)

Calxeda’s solution is essentially high-density, placing one OS and four processors per chip. They predict that this will be a cheaper and lower power approach to running multiple virtual servers (running approximately 5W per server.)

However, there are some serious doubts that this will pose any significant challenge to the existing server market. The primary problems are:

  1. The EnergyCore processors have relatively low clock (1.1-1.4 GHz) compared to what is out there. For example, AMD’s new 8-core Zambezi series for workstations runs by default at 3.1 GHz.
  2. Calxeda is an unknown company. Even though HP is backing it, they are going up against Intel who has decades of experience in precisely this type of technology and an almost unshakeable reputation.
  3. While HP and Calxeda are touting this as a “low-cost” solution, we really have no idea what this will cost. ARM technology used in this way is relatively new, so in the beginning it may very well be an expensive choice, not to mention there will be a relative shortage of expertise in support. The above-linked AMD FX-8120 sells for just over $200. Later this month, we will see its Bulldozer architecture hit the market for servers in the form of the “Interlagos” series. Calxeda is essentially playing catch-up.

Cloud computing is all about cost and performance. Energy consumption does not weigh as much as a consideration because the resources are offsite. You aren’t dealing with the immediate effects of power usage costs. 

In order to be successful, HP and Calxeda will need to offer customers something that competes with the sheer performance of Intel and the high value-to-cost ratio of AMD.

Calxeda’s “Goliath” metaphor couldn’t be more appropriate…