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|Once An Intel Stronghold, Dell Now Testing ARM Processors |
2/27/2012 @ 6:57PM |5,492 views
Dell has long been synonymous with servers built around the so-called ‘x86' processors used in personal computers. That might not always be the case, Forrest Norrod, general manager for Dell’s server solutions group hinted Monday.
“We’ve had ARM systems in our lab for over a year,” Norrod says, referring to the processor architecture shared by the processors that power most of the world’s smartphones. “If that’s what our customers demand that’s what we’ll offer.”
Norrod spoke with Forbes at an event in San Francisco where Dell introduced a portfolio of new blade, rack, and tower servers.
A credible threat
Of course, signaling that Dell has options gives the Round Rock, Texas company more leverage when negotiating with Intel or AMD for x86 processors. However the ability to make a credible case that Dell could adopt ARM-based processors — such a those sold by Samsung, Qualcomm, Texas Instruments, and Nvidia — also underscores how different Dell is than it was a decade ago.
While Dell once built servers that were little more than rack-mounted versions of the personal computers Dell is best known for, the company has been reshaping itself to capture surging demand for data center gear. Since 2009, former IBM mergers and acquisitions chief David Johnson has led Dell through a dozen acquisitions to round out its portfolio of networking and data storage products.
Dell has also worked to make it easier to manage vast fleets of servers. One of its crown jewels is the company’s lifecycle management technology, which relies on a package of software and proprietary hardware bolted onto the motherboards of all Dell’s servers.
Five-hundred engineers work on this feature alone, Norrod says. “Our management is independent of the processor powering the server,” Norrod says. “If we wanted to incorporate ARM into our server lineup, to any management tool it just looks like a PowerEdge server.”
Making a switch to ARM processors might let Dell build servers that can offer some interesting options for customers concerned about power consumption. “ARM has some interesting advancements around power density,” Norrod says, adding that Intel and AMD have both been working to trim down their processors power consumption as well.
Don’t expect ARM to dominate the data center soon
Of course, ARM processors won’t dominate data centers anytime soon. For starters, ARM processors can only gulp down 32 bits of data at a time, compared to the 64-bits that can be easily handled by x86 processors. “I don’t believe customer are going to want to port their applications back to 32 bits from 64 bits.”
64-bit ARM processors won’t be ready for work in production servers until the end of 2013, Norrod figures. Even then, however, Intel and AMD will have an advantage for some time because the vast majority of business software is written to run on x86 processors.
Still, Norrod is clearly keeping his options open. Samsung has hired processor designers from AMD to help build 64-bit ARM processors, former AMD employees say.
So has anyone from Dell — which is based in Round Rock, Texas — met with anyone from Samsung’s server processor team, which is based a short drive away in nearby Austin?
“That’s a reasonable extrapolation,” Norrod says.