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Dell warns market of ARM server pitfalls

Dell has confirmed that it's playing with the idea of creating servers based on British chip design firm ARM's Cortex-A15, but warns that there are several roadblocks ahead for the company's assault on Intel's stronghold.

With the launch of the Cortex-A15 design, codenamed 'Eagle,' it became clear that ARM was hoping to attract server manufacturers interested in many-core, low-power boxes for cloud computing and parallel processing projects. With support for far more memory that its 32-bit design would suggest, coupled with virtualisation extensions and other server-friendly features, it's a move that has caused the industry to sit up and take note.

Dell's Forrest Norrod, general manager of server platforms, has issued a stark warning that the path ahead for ARM-based servers is far from clear, however - with many roadblocks on the route to challenging Intel's dominance of the market.

"Fundamentally it's a software issue," said Norrod during an interview with IDG. "Are there enough benefits from that architecture for porting your code over to that new instruction set [...] and [having to] maintain two different software stacks?"

With the server market having standardised on the x86 architecture years ago - despite some dalliances with alternative architectures such as MIPS and Alpha - Norrod has a point. While ARM's chip designs offer multiple advantages over those from Intel and AMD - including lower power draw, reduced heat output, and the ability to create spin-off designs of your own if you're a chipmaker - the software side could be ARM's downfall.

Unlike the mobile and embedded markets, where ARM designs rule supreme, the server software market is largely x86 based. While Microsoft's decision to support the ARM architecture in Windows 8 - and, by extension, the next edition of Windows Server - will help matters, everything that runs on the operating system will need to be re-written and re-compiled for the ARM architecture.

Such matters haven't prevent other companies from dipping their toes in the ARM server waters, with ZT Systems launching a 16-core ARM server back in November of last year.

Norrod admits that he's watching the market carefully to gauge demand, and that if customers start demanding ARM-based servers Dell will produce them - but it sounds like the company isn't quite convinced that ARM represents the next big thing in the server market.