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ARM server pioneer Calxeda closes down

Calxeda, the pioneering maker of low-power microservers using hundreds of ARM central processor cores and System-on-a-Chip (SoC) products for hardware appliances, has laid off most of its employees and is shutting down operations beyond servicing its existing customers and investments.

"Carrying the load of industry pioneer has exceeded our ability to continue to operate as we had envisioned," Calxeda founder and president Barry Evans said in a statement.

"Over the last few years, Calxeda has been a driving force in the industry for low-power server processors and fabric-based computing. The concept of a fabric of ARM-based servers challenging the industry giants was not on anyone's radar screen when we started this journey. Now it is a foregone conclusion that the industry will be transformed forever."

The Austin, Texas-based company was founded in 2008 by Evans, Larry Wikelius, and David Borland. Calxeda was possibly the first, and certainly among the very earliest ventures to attempt to build a server platform with the 32-bit ARM v7 CPU instruction set, much more commonly used for extremely low-power application processors powering mobile client devices like smartphones and tablets.

The company was also an innovator in the development of an easily scalable, energy efficient, distributed computing architecture for the data centre using large numbers of compute nodes interconnected in a "fabric" via high-bandwidth data packet transfer pipelines.

Calxeda's ARM-based systems were designed to compete with the dominant x86 server platforms provided by Intel and AMD by offering similar performance but better energy efficiency via the use of a "many-core" architecture utilising numerous limited, but very low-power CPU cores working in tandem, rather than a few muscular but very power-hungry Xeon or Opteron chips.

The company was widely praised for taking on the establishment and delivering on products like its ARM Cortex A9-based ECX-1000 server platform, and ARM Cortex A15-based ECX-2000 SoC line aimed at cloud infrastructure-supporting systems. Calxeda's technology has also been used in Hewlett-Packard's "Project Moonshot" low-power server platform.

The sincerest compliment for Calxeda may have come when Intel rolled out its own many-core server products, and AMD acquired SeaMicro and obtained its own license to build ARM-based server chips.

Unfortunately for Calxeda, timing and not a lack of technological prowess may have been its downfall, according to Patrick Moorhead, principal analyst for Moor Insights & Strategy. The company hasn't detailed the specific reasons it's shutting down, but it is pretty common knowledge that Calxeda's 32-bit product portfolio struggled to compete in broad market segments with 64-bit, x86-based chips capable of accessing more memory which have become the key drivers of back-end computing.

"Calxeda was literally the pioneer in fabric and ARM-based servers. In retrospect, they were too early, and data centres are opting to wait for 64-bit applications and development environments. They laid the groundwork for both Applied Micro and AMD to succeed with their 64-bit offerings," the analyst said.

The sad irony for Calxeda is that just as it is closing its doors, ARM's first ever 64-bit instruction set, ARMv8-A, has been made available to licensees.

Yesterday, partners and sources close to the company expressed regret about the end of Calxeda's boundary-pushing run as an enterprise.

"As an innovator, Calxeda successfully demonstrated the benefits of efficient ARM-based servers and we are hopeful their restructuring can preserve the technology that they developed. Many other companies are now developing solutions around ARM spanning a range of workloads and goals, so regardless, today's news doesn't change our commitment to, or outlook on the server market," an ARM spokesperson said.

One source close to Calxeda said the news "breaks my heart," while Moorhead simply said: "It's a sad day in Austin."