Advanced Computing in the Age of AI | Tuesday, August 16, 2022

ARM Servers To Get Muscle From Microsoft? 

Microsoft is reportedly – and not unexpectedly – developing a variant of the Windows Server operating system that runs on ARM server processors.

Bloomberg reports that Microsoft has a test version of the Windows Server operating system running on machines based on ARM chips, but does not specify which chips had been tested or what variant of Windows Server was ported to the devices. The report was attributed to unnamed sources.

A Microsoft spokesperson said Monday the company "has nothing to share in regards to the Bloomberg story."

If Microsoft decides to make the server software commercially available, the move to support ARM could challenge Intel's dominance of the market for server chips. Intel's X86 processors run in the vast majority of current servers inside datacenters, and include its workhorse Xeon chips, the low-power Atoms, and the massively parallel Xeon Phi coprocessors that will be a standalone processor in their own right when an updated version ships in 2015.

Microsoft has long played it close to the vest in terms of what if anything it is planning in terms of an ARM version of its server operating system. It is among a list of operating system and server chip vendors that provided input for development of a server chip specification targeting 64-bit ARM processors.

ARM has been working with operating system developers as well as chip and system vendors as part of a Server Base System Architecture specification. The hardware spec details, for example, how the operating system kernel as well as the rest of the operating system interacts with an ARM-based system-on-a-chip. The ARM-driven spec also covers firmware and hypervisors.

"This is a hardware spec for OS and firmware developers," Ian Drew, chief marketing officer for ARM Holdings, told the Open Compute Summit in January.

Microsoft earlier ported its Windows RT operating system to mobile devices running the 32-bit ARM architecture (ARMv7). The Microsoft Surface RT tablet sought to leverage the ARM chip's power efficiency as a way to boost battery life, but it was a flop with consumers. When it launched the RT, the kernel for the OS had obviously been ported to ARM chips, and the next obvious question was when would Windows Server be ported over. All Microsoft would ever say is that Windows Server 2012 was not enabled to run on ARM and that Windows Server 2012 R2 would not have ARM support. That would seem to suggest that the next rev of Windows, perhaps the one based on Windows Server 10, will have ARM support. Microsoft has been mum on the subject.

ARM chips have, however, made their way into other handheld devices, including smartphones and other brands of tablets. But the partners of the Intel chip rival still face the problem of getting 64-bit server chips into the field. Many had thought an ARM server chip ramp would begin in earnest in 2014, but now it is looking more like 2015.

To help foster a nascent 64-bit server market, ARM has attempted to pull together an ecosystem of hardware and other system vendors. Part of the reason earlier attempts fizzled was the lack of server software and the fact that chips only supported 32-bit processing and memory addressing. ARM server chip pioneer Calxeda unexpectedly closed its doors late last year after its 40-bit and 64-bit initiatives failed. Founded in 2008 by a former Intel engineer, Calxeda was among the first chipmakers to produce power-efficient ARM processors for the datacenter.

Before it ran out of cash in December 2013, Calxeda's ARM-based chips were expected to be deployed in Hewlett Packard's Moonshot servers. HP ended up going with Intel Atom processors that offered comparable power savings. But, ARM chips have nonetheless made their way into the Moonshots, including one module that sports the X-Gene1 chip from Applied Micro and another that has the KeyStone-II ARM-DSP hybrid chips from Texas Instruments. The latter uses a 32-bit ARM chip with two or four cores mixed with eight DSPs, while the former is an eight-core 64-bit ARM chip.

While Linux is by far the underpinnings of most public clouds outside of the Microsoft Azure public cloud and has become the platform of choice for many financial institutions and various data analytics workloads, Windows Server is still the dominant platform in the world in terms of overall server shipments and revenues. Microsoft started out supporting Windows Server on X86, Itanium, MIPS, Alpha, and Power architectures, but over the years weaned that back to X86 platforms. You can bet that Microsoft is not eager to have to support two architectures and is only doing so because there is substantial interest. And just because Microsoft is playing around with something in the labs does not mean the company will commercialize it. With hundreds of thousands of applications currently running on the X86 variant of Windows Server, porting these applications would be a gargantuan job and the payoff has to be worth the trouble.

About the author: George Leopold

George Leopold has written about science and technology for more than 30 years, focusing on electronics and aerospace technology. He previously served as executive editor of Electronic Engineering Times. Leopold is the author of "Calculated Risk: The Supersonic Life and Times of Gus Grissom" (Purdue University Press, 2016).

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