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The hardware company unveiled its latest project, the Copper servers running Marvell ARM processors, for its cloud customers.

The name of the game in data centers is how to consume less power. The latest trend to accomplish this is shifting from more complex processors to processors built with the ARM architecture. ARM architecture is only 32-bit processing right now but reports have surfaced that state the next iteration of the architecture will handle 64-bit processing.


In most devices, many ARM processors are used to get a comparable amount of computing power to, say, an Intel or AMD chip while using less electricity. This is mainly because ARM processors are typically found in mobile devices like cell phones. Extra consideration and thought go into how to make a processor perform the same upper-level functions like a desktop computer (as much as possible) while limiting power consumption.

However, Dell has released a new server using ARM processors (specifically quad-core Marvell processors) while consuming less power and outputting competitive processing performance. For example the Armada processor uses 4 ARM-based cores and puts out 1.6GHz. That is roughly equivalent to what a low-end Xeon chip from Intel could output. The difference is that the Armada chip uses 15 fewer watts than the comparable Xeon chip. Not to be counted out however, Intel is also working on ARM processors to achieve that same benchmark of lower power consumption.

Dell’s new server is called Copper and runs multiple ARM-based Marvell processors. The ARM architecture was developed originally by ARM Holdings (a British company) but licenses out its designs so other processor makers can churn out variations of the hardware for servers and mobile devices. Many see this as a smarter move than, say, what Intel does, which is design and build its own processors. In general, the tech community values sharing and customization more than a locked down product like Intel chips.

One question mark surrounding the issue of wider spread adoption of ARM processors is making sure software has been programmed to run on ARM-based chips. Also, servers would need a design overhaul to ensure ARM chips would be able to communicate with each other more efficiently. In fact, that seems to be the biggest source of consternation for those building servers that are trying to implement servers with ARM processors.

ARM processors are growing in popularity, despite many hurdles. For example, Ubuntu supports ARM, and programs on the classic LAMP stack are rolling out ARM support later this month. The big data software Hadoop can run on ARM processors and the new startup Calxeda (also making ARM-based servers) recently did a demonstration showing how WordPress could run on servers with ARM processors.

Enterprise-level software must be able to run on ARM processors to make a switch to ARM-based servers viable on a large scale. Most enterprise-level software is 64-bit and with ARM’s next release supporting 64-bit, it looks like the ARM solution will become more viable than ever. Those chips are projected to hit the market in 2013 or 2014.

Primarily these servers will be used for Dell’s cloud customers. Cloud servers can scale so quickly that when a server is under strain, more servers can be harnessed to help process instructions and commands. Servers using ARM processors may not pack much of a punch alone, which leaves the market open for dedicated hosting and shows how there will still be a need for non-ARM processors.

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Currently the Copper servers are only available for testing with select customers. Other companies are jumping on this bandwagon, however. HP has started development of ARM-based servers and again, Calxeda is working on servers with ARM processors.

If you’re interested in reading more about hardware, check out our blog post about third-party custom server makers giving HP and Dell a run for their money.