Server Developer Calxeda Launches ARM Server Development Platform

ARM made good on its announced intention to introduce server products today through a partnership with Calxeda (formerly Smooth-Stone). The CPU developer has been planning to introduce server products for quite some time. ARM, in this case, isn't alone--Intel is planning to launch Atom-flavored Xeon processors, while AMD is evaluating the idea of Brazos-powered Opteron products.

Today, Calxeda announced its Trailblazer platform and the ten companies that've signed on as part of that initiative. These include Autonomic Resources, Canonical, Caringo, Couchbase, Datastax, Eucalyptus Systems, Gluster, Momentum SI, Opscode, and Pervasive. Canonical--best known for developing Ubuntu in its mobile, desktop, and server flavors--will provide the OS behind Calxeda's server initiative.

Much of the talk regarding future ARM processors as competition in the server/netbook markets have focused on the upcoming Cortex-A15 (codenamed Eagle.) According to ARM, the A15 is 40 percent faster clock-for-clock than the current high-end Cortex-A9. The A9 lacks the A15's more powerful built-in FPU (the A9 can be built without one), and is built on a 40nm process whereas the A15 will debut between 32nm - 28nm depending on the foundry. Neither the A15 or the A9 are 64-bit processors, but the upcoming Cortex-A15 will offer 40-bit memory addressing. This dramatically expands the amount of RAM the CPU can address, from 4GB for the 32-bit A9 to 1TB for the A15. ARM has not announced any plans for 64-bit chips but has noted it's logical to think such chips are in the cards.

The Cortex-A15 is obviously the stronger CPU, but actual products aren't expected to ship until 2012-2013. Calxeda has
decided to launch now and offer A15 products at a later date. This makes a certain amount of sense--Intel doesn't plan to launch Atom-flavored Xeons until 2012. Calxeda's strategy generally ignores Windows in favor of Ubuntu. The VP of marketing for Calxeda, Karl Freund, told The Register "Microsoft has not made any announcements about Windows Server on ARM," Freund warns. "If Windows happens, great. That's all upside for us and we'll love it if it happens."

Calxeda is a young company, but it raised an impressive $48 million in 2010 during its first round of funding. The company is focusing on delivering a cloud-centric server cluster that will be competitive with the 64-bit Xeons Intel has
demonstrated (SeaMicro has developed a 64-bit Atom cluster that packs 512 x86 cores into a 10U space.)

Calxeda claims it can offer "complete" server nodes at a TDP of less than 5W. The reference system packs 120 nodes (480 cores) into a 2U chassis. It expects to ship systems to its partner companies and developers by the end of the year. The ARM Cortex-A9 cores that Calxeda will use are custom jobs, presumably with additional RAS features and support for ECC memory.

Intel has responded to the potential competition from AMD and ARM by aggressively stepping up its own plans for Atom. At this point, all three companies have horses in the race. Intel has decades of experience in developing server hardware, AMD has Brazos (which typically outperforms Atom by 20-25 percent), and ARM arguably has more experience with developing low-power architectures than either of its x86 counterparts. The server market is sufficiently broad that ARM's incompatibility with the x86 architecture shouldn't be a major issue.