In that case, he says, the quad-core chips being used by Marvell (which have four central processing units that work in parallel) could use less than 10 watts in situations where most other processors commonly use more than 80 watts. But for tasks that need a lot of processing power, like heavy database applications and high-speed trading, the chips would likely offer no power savings, he says.
There are also major hurdles that must be overcome before ARM chips are widely accepted. The server industry has 20 years of experience fine-tuning software for the “x86” instruction set used by Intel and AMD. This means ARM chips cannot run operating systems and other software developed for x86-based systems. They are compatible with open-source systems such as Linux, Halfhill says. But specialized software has typically been developed for x86 platforms.
ARM is also a 32-bit architecture, whereas data centers typically use 64-bit architectures. This means the software that runs on these systems is designed to handle larger chunks of data than ARM chips can deal with, making rewriting it harder.
Gary Lauterbach, chief technology officer of another company offering low-power server chips, SeaMicro, says that ARM-based servers could commonly provide energy savings of 50 percent or more after a year of implementation. But he believes that ARM servers will only succeed by drawing an active open-source community to build and optimize software. If that happens, he says, “we are in for a battle that will likely help consumers significantly.”
SeaMicro, based in Santa Clara, California, is designing server chips based on Intel’s low-power, x86-compatible Atom chipset for mobile devices. SeaMicro’s first product, the SM10000 server, offers twice the performance per watt of a comparable high-end server, according to Microprocessor Report.
“You can count on the industry providing many more low-power alternatives in the near future,” says Wu Feng, a computer scientist and energy-efficiency expert at Virginia Tech.
“More than half of the data centers out there claim that electricity use is their number-one facility issue,” he adds. “Right now everyone in the server industry is looking for that one product that could completely change how servers use energy.”