Server maker Lenovo might have just shelled out billions of dollars to acquire IBM’s System x X86 server business, but don’t be confused. Lenovo is keeping its eye on developments in the ARM server processor market. To see what kind of potential ARM server chips have in the HPC arena, Lenovo has just teamed up with Hartree Centre, a supercomputing center in the United Kingdom, to build a prototype cluster that will marry Lenovo’s NeXtScale minimalist server designs with Cavium’s ThunderX ARM server processors.
The NeXtScale machines debuted from IBM back in September 2013, and they are the follow-on machines to its iDataPlex systems. Both machines are aimed at high performance computing and hyperscale customers alike, but Big Blue got more traction with both lines among the HPC crowd than it did the hyperscalers. IBM officially supported only Xeon processors from Intel in the iDataPlex and NextScale machines, and Lenovo is sticking with that plan for now, too, except for a few prototypes.
This is not the first time that the former IBM techies who now work for Lenovo have built a prototype ARM machine. A few years back, says Scott Tease, executive director of Lenovo’s HPC business, IBM put together a NeXtScale system that married together 32-bit processors from now-defunct ARM chip designer Calxeda with 3 TB disk drives to create a server sled with integrated networking that could support six drives for 18 TB of capacity per sled. This storage array was “a little too early” in terms of the software stack and market acceptance, but Tease says that Lenovo is convinced that “there is real gold at the end of the tunnel” when it comes to ARM processors, “but it is a big tunnel to get through to get to the gold.”
Lenovo is working with all of the ARM server chip makers – AMD, Applied Micro, Broadcom, Cavium, and Qualcomm – to keep abreast of what they are doing, but for this prototype Lenovo and Hartree Centre chose the ThunderX ARM variant from Cavium as the main engine. The ThunderX chip is interesting for a number of reasons. First, it has two-socket NUMA linking of processors and their main memories, giving it parity in this respect with a Xeon E5-2600 processor from Intel. The entry ThunderX will have eight cores and consume about 20 watts, and a top-end 48-core ThunderX chip will burn about 95 watts. Cavium has said that once you take into account the NUMA and peripheral chipset and a LAN-on-motherboard card to a Xeon E5-2600, the ThunderX has about a 50 percent lower power envelope at roughly equivalent performance.
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