Marvell’s Armada XP Could Bring a Cloud Revolution

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Chip maker Marvell has announced a new enterprise-class server chip: the Armada XP. This is an ARM architecture chip, very similar to those found in the majority of handheld computing devices at the moment--everything from iPhones to Kindle eBook readers.

As you might expect, the Armada XP is more powerful than the chips found in those humble devices. It contains four cores running at 1.6GHz and is a system-on-a-chip, meaning that there's no need for additional chipset hardware to take care of interfacing with the likes of storage or memory devices.

The XP stands for "Extreme Performance" although its name is, viewed from every angle, a stupid choice. Anybody with any knowledge will think of AMD's old Athlon XP chips, or Microsoft's hoary, bewhiskered operating system.

That aside, the Armada XP is an intriguing new product. Its chief selling point is that it consumes very little power compared to competitors from Intel or AMD. Lower power is not only environmentally friendly but also means less heat is produced, potentially making these chips easier to work with from a practical viewpoint. When you realize data centers need extraordinary amounts of expensive air conditioning, you can see why this is good.

Will we be seeing Armada XP-based systems anytime soon? It's unlikely. Marvell is trying to carve out a new niche in a market that has traditionally been dominated by x86 and PowerPC architectures. The biggest issue facing take-up will be software: You're not going to be able to run any Microsoft enterprise-level products on this chip because of its ARM architecture (although there have been rumors that Microsoft is sniffing around ARM for its server products). However, as you might expect, open source is already on the scene, and has been for some time.

However, Marvell has its eye on a different market: cloud computing. This is still a nascent area, and providers are struggling to determine the best ways of making optimal use of hardware. Unlike much of the computing industry, the cloud isn't an area owned by x86.

There's much talk about performance-per-watt, meaning the amount of computing power that can be gained per dollar spent. The ARM architecture is a serious contender here, even if it does tend to be slower than equivalent Intel or AMD products. The Armada XP weighs in at less than 10 watts--around one tenth the power taken by the average light bulb. Add in less need for expensive air conditioning in server farms, and even the most ardent x86 fan will raise an eyebrow.

Although we can expect to see some curio products here and there based on the Armada XP, such as home media servers or NAS devices, it simply isn't a serious contender right now in the server space. It has some serious technical limitations, such as being only 32-bit, but it signifies Marvell (and, by extension, ARM) is assembling a legion that will fight in the great cloud battle that's about to commence. Its soldiers might not be as legion as the likes of Intel, but they have specific skills that are ideal for this kind of battle.

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The net result will undoubtedly be cheaper computing resources--not only because of potentially cheaper performance-per-watt figures, but also from the serious competition that Intel and AMD face now face.

It might even be the case one day that x86 is sandwiched between ARM in the marketplace--there'll be ARM on mobile devices and ARM in the cloud, leaving x86 in the middle to run desktop and notebook computers and modest server setups.

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