Apache on ARM Chips? Dell and Calxeda Help Make it Happen

There’s more than one way to handle massive amounts of information on web servers. You could move to a more expensive server – or you could add more inexpensive servers. The latest activity between the Apache Software Foundation, Dell, and Calxeda aim to approach the same problem at the microprocessor level.

The Apache Software Foundation’s projects, as you may be aware, aren’t limited to their web server software. Sure, they boast the most popular web server in the world, but they’re also juggling well over 100 other open source projects. Many of these projects have proven influential to cloud computing, such as “NoSQL” database CouchDB and Cassandra, and the Hadoop platform.

All of these projects take the approach of adding an inexpensive server to a project as opposed to moving to a bigger, more powerful (and more expensive) server when one inevitably needs more muscle to handle more data. It’s much less painful for most of those who use these platforms to pay the lesser amount of money periodically over time than to spring for the large expensive machine in one fell swoop.

Now these smaller, less expensive machines tend to run on Intel x86 chips. But what kind of server would you get if it ran on the same chips that many manufacturers use in smartphones?

ARM chips consume far less power than chips based on the Intel x86 architecture. A server running on such chips could save a company a serious amount of money…especially when you consider that most companies operating on the “more, inexpensive servers” model vs. the “move to a single, more costly but more powerful server” model often boast many servers, accumulated over time. This means any savings from lower energy usage garnered from a single server could be multiplied many times over many servers, assuming all were replaced.

But in fact there’s a better story to tell here. What if you simply put many small ARM processors into one server? In other words, instead of getting 10 inexpensive servers, each with a single Intel x86 processor, how about getting one server with 10 ARM processors?

Perhaps to help answer that question, server makers Dell and  Ealxeda donated the Dell Zinc servers to the Apache Software Foundation. This server uses Calxeda EnergyCore chips, based on the ARM architecture. Sadly, this server is not available to the public as of yet. Dell and Calxeda will jointly support the server, which will reside at the latter’s colocation facility in Texas. If you’re keen to look into ARM-based servers, however, you might check Dell’s Copper servers.

The move to an ARM architecture is not without its issues, which is why Dell and Calxeda made this donation in the first place. Their hope is that the Apache Software Foundation can work on porting applications to the new server so that they’ll work well, and even start developing new software specifically for ARM-based servers.

Rather than consider this the wave of the future, however, I believe it’s best to view it as one possible alternative. Both Oracle and Intel seem to be betting on a future full of big servers with big processors, and they aren’t going away. Still, if Dell, Apache, and Calxeda show that ARM-based servers are both cost-effective and capable, you might find it worth studying to see if such servers could suit your company’s needs going forward.

For more on this topic, check out the Wired story.

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