AMD has finally begun commercial shipments of the Opteron A1100 series of processors based on the ARM processor architecture, aiming to shake up the data centre market by offering energy-efficient chips for applications such as network function virtualisation (NFV), software-defined storage (SDS) and web services.
The Opteron A1100 Series, formerly known by the codename Seattle, is AMD's gamble that it can secure a slice of the growing data centre and service provider market with an ARM-based system on a chip (SoC) as an alternative to the x86 server systems that currently predominate.
The Opteron A1100 line-up comprises three chips at launch with up to eight 64-bit cores based on ARM's Cortex A57 core design. The chips support up to 128GB of DDR3 or DDR4 memory, and as SoC designs they feature integrated functions including a pair of 10Gbps Ethernet ports, eight lanes of PCI Express Gen 3, and twin Sata 3 storage controllers supporting up to 14 ports.
AMD began sampling the Opteron A1100 in 2014 when it was available only as a development platform. Today, however, AMD is officially launching the chip as a commercial platform, and said that it expects to see production systems from partners by the end of the first quarter of 2016.
The significance of AMD bringing ARM chips to market is that the firm has a track record of selling processors into the enterprise market. AMD pioneered the first 64-bit x86 processors over a decade ago, while Intel was trying to convince the market that its Itanium architecture was the way forward.
And while there are already some ARM-based servers and chips available, these tend to be aimed at very specific applications, as in the case of HP's Moonshot system. AMD has designed the Opteron A1100 as a general-purpose chip suitable for a broader range of use cases, the firm said.
"The AMD Opteron A1100 Series is the first time that AMD has brought to market an enterprise-class SoC based on an ARM platform," said Dan Bounds, senior director for data centre products and enterprise solutions at AMD.
Bounds explained that AMD sees the new chip as "a turning point and a catalyst for accelerating data centre innovation", and that this hinges on giving customers greater choice when looking to solve new and emerging problems.
These problems include the burgeoning growth of back-end services supporting mobile devices and their applications. ARM-based servers have been touted as a possible fit for this problem for several years, as the chips are typically less power hungry and can be crammed more densely into data centre environments than standard x86 hardware.
The Opteron A1100 is being manufactured using an optimised 28nm production process. There will be three initial variants at first: two with eight cores and a thermal design power (TDP) rating of 32W, and a third with just four cores and a TDP of 25W. The top-end chip has a clock speed of 2GHz, while the other two run at 1.7GHz.
AMD said that initial target markets for the Opteron A1100 include networking, SDS, web serving and software development.
"We're seeing particular interest in the area of NFV," said Bounds, indicating that this is down to AMD's integration of twin 10Gbps Ethernet interfaces on the processor itself.
Similarly, the combination of eight CPU cores and integrated controllers supporting up to 14 Sata ports makes it a strong candidate for scale-out storage, Bounds said, while web serving is a particularly good candidate for the ARM architecture.
"You need a low-cost, very high energy efficiency and very flexible design to continue to make inroads from the edge of the data centre, tackling the presentation and web layers, and all indications are that this is an excellent option for those use cases," he said.
AMD said that one vendor preparing to deliver servers based on the new chips is UK-based SoftIron, which already supplies development systems based on the Opteron A1100, but is now expanding its portfolio to include SDS systems.
The firm has today launched Beaconworks, an early adopter programme for customers interested in deploying SDS based on its platform.
Other partners include Foxconn subsidiary Caswell, which is developing NFV solutions, while 96Boards is an initiative from the Linaro Linux-on-ARM project to deliver a low-cost enterprise development platform expected to come in at "hundreds of dollars instead of thousands of dollars", according to Bounds.
AMD also counts Linux firms Red Hat and Suse among its major partners on the operating system side, while Canonical added support for 64-bit ARM chips to its Ubuntu 14.04 LTS distribution in 2014.
ARM servers have faced a number of hurdles to broader adoption, the foremost being the dominance of x86 chips in the data centre and the knock-on effect that much of the relevant software ecosystem has been developed for x86 systems.
However, Lenovo, which is pursuing its own ARM-based server platform, pointed out that many potential customers in the cloud and service provider market have a "strong desire for open systems such as Linux" that are not tied to any particular processor architecture.
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