Attacking The Datacenter From The Edge Inward

For much of the decade, a debate around Arm was whether it would fulfill its promise to become a silicon designer with suppliers of any significance to datacenter hardware. The company initially saw an opportunity in the trend among enterprises in buying energy-efficient servers that could run their commercial workloads but not sabotage their budgets by gobbling up huge amounts of power while doing that. Arm’s low-power architecture that dominates the mobile device market seemed a good fit for those situations, despite the challenge of building up a software ecosystem that could support it.

And every step – forward or back – along the way was noted and scrutinized, from major OEMs like Dell EMC and Hewlett Packard Enterprise running out systems powered by Arm-based SoCs and the rise of hyperscalers like Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon with their massive datacenters and their need to keep lid on power consumption to the early exit of pioneer Calxeda, the backing away by AMD and Samsung, the sharp left turn by Qualcomm to exit the server chip space after coming out with its Centriq system-on-a-chip (SoC), the consolidation that saw Marvell buy Cavium, and the embrace by the HPC crowd such as Cray and Fujitsu.

Through all this, Arm has gained a degree of traction, from major cloud providers and system makers adopting the Arm architecture to various degrees to chip makers like Marvell (now with Cavium) and Ampere – led by a group of ex-Intel executives, including CEO Renee James – putting together products to go into the systems.

While all this was going, the industry saw the rise of edge computing, driven by the ongoing decentralization of IT that has been fueled by not only the cloud but the proliferation of mobile devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, analytics and automation, and other trends like artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. There is a drive to put as much compute, storage, virtualization and analytics capabilities as close as possible to the devices that are generating massive amounts of data and to gain crucial insights into that data as close to real time as possible.

Arm over the past couple of years has put a sharp focus on the edge, IoT, 5G and other emerging trends, a concentration that was evident at last month’s TechCon show. There was more discussion of the company’s Pelion IoT platform and Neoverse – an edge and hyperscale infrastructure platform that includes everything from silicon to reference designs.


The chip designer talked about expanding its Platform Security Architecture (PSA) that Arm partners and third parties can leverage to build more security into their IoT devices out to the infrastructure edge, part of a larger effort called Project Cassini. Launched in partnership with ecosystem partners, Arm is looking to leverage its strong presence in endpoints to drive the evolution of infrastructure and cloud-native software at the edge through Arm technologies and the development of platform standards and reference systems.

It’s part of Arm’s effort to take a leadership role in how the edge develops, a delicate balancing act that includes other technology vendors and essentially sets the direction while enabling broad participation in how things move in that direction, according to Drew Henry, the company’s one-time head of the infrastructure business and now senior vice president of IPG and operations. It’s a different role than Arm has taken in the past in the datacenter and uncommon in the industry as a whole, Henry tells The Next Platform.

“What we’re doing is carefully stepping with our ecosystem a little in front of it, saying, ‘Hey, this is the view we have. Let’s all go along this together,’” he says. “You see this beginning to show up. There’s this industry consortium – that’s the Autonomous Vehicle Computing Consortium that we’re doing in the autonomy space. Project Cassini, which is about how to create a standard platform for edge computing that respects the diversity of silicon and some of the designs around those types of devices, going from low power to high power, small amounts of compute to large amounts of compute, all kinds of locations and industrial IoT locations to 5G bay stations, whatever. Realizing that’s a strength, that you want to enable a software ecosystem to be able to deploy [solutions], how you marry those things. We stepped in with that ecosystem and said, ‘Alright, let’s just agree on some standards on a way these platforms are going to boot, let’s agree with the way security is going to be held in it. If we do that well, then the cloud-native software companies will be able to come in and deploy software on top of it in a cloud-native stack fairly easily to do the things that people want to do. That’s that balance.”

That’s a contrast to what has driven computing with Intel, Henry added, “where there’s been this ecosystem, but with one incredibly dominant viewpoint for it. There’s just so much invention that has to happen over the next decade or so to accomplish these rules of autonomy and Internet of Things and stuff that it’s too much to expect that any one company is going to have all the right answers. The ecosystem needs to [drive] it.”

A Different Animal

The datacenter compute environment for Arm continues to evolve, driven not only by what the chip designer is doing with its architecture but also with the efforts from manufacturing partners. Marvell is continuing to develop the ThunderX2 SoCs that it inherited when it bought Cavium for about $5.5 billion last year, and other chip makers like Ampere are coming to market with offerings based on the X-Gene designs from Applied Micro, which the company bought. At the same time, some tech vendors are taking Arm’s architecture and creating their own chips. Fujitsu is developing the AFX64 chip, which will be the foundation for its Post-K supercomputer. Amazon Web Services (AWS) turned to the Arm architecture – with expertise from its acquisition of Annapurna Labs for $350 million in 2015 – for its Graviton chips. Huawei is also making a play in the Arm chip space.

Enterprise, supercomputer and cloud datacenters are served by suppliers and companies that develop their own Arm-based chips, with Arm innovation and investment, Henry says. Arm is not so much leading an evolution but working with companies to grow the presence of its architecture in datacenters. But the edge is different and calls for Arm to take a different – and a more leadership – role.

“The spaces in compute in the large, aggregated compute areas, which are datacenter and supercomputing, I feel really good about the portfolio that is servicing those,” he says. “That’s why we’ve kind of shifted our focus now, effectively saying, ‘Alright, we’ve got a lot of work to do to continue to help with that group, but there’s also this emerging area of compute at the edge that also needs to be invested in – where if we don’t invest, collectively as an ecosystem to get it established, it is going to take longer to mature than it should.”

The edge is a different compute environment, where the “ecosystem broadens because now you’ve got companies that have networking IP that you can combine together with silicon,” Henry says. “This is where Broadcom enters into the marketplace, and NXP enters into the marketplace and others, so we’ve got a pretty rich ecosystem of being able to provide compute wherever you need compute. A lot of people fixate on the classical server sitting in a datacenter. That’s a relatively small unit amount in the marketplace, relatively small compute that’s done across the ecosystem. We absolutely are doing great in that space, but it’s not the only focus for us. Servicing the cloud is fairly well understood. Serving compute at the infrastructure edge is more complicated, so that is where we can be much more involved in leading and coordinating the activities there. That’s what Cassini’s about.”

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