Where are the cheap ARM servers?

November 4, 2011 — 1 Comment

I don’t think there’s anyone left who would argue that the success of the Intel x86 servers was down to commodity hardware being cheap – much cheaper than the IBM POWER or Sun Sparc equivalent kit. This low cost was driven in large part by the shared design and components between x86 servers and high-end desktop PCs, massively increasing the volumes of the components produced, and leading to low cost commodity parts.

Today, we’re again looking at an inflection point in server processors, this time with a potential switch from x86 to ARM. ARM chips run in everything from your washing machine through to your mobile phone, so should be bringing with them the massive resources of commodity hardware volumes, leading to cheaper generic equipment.

But… it isn’t happening, not yet anyway. When you can buy a complete SIM-free Android phone for under $100, the screen-less, wifi-less, 3g-less equivalent hardware (with an ethernet port instead) should be costing $50 or less. Instead, you get HP launching a ARM server range with Calxeda, but essentially saying “They’re cheap to run, not cheap to buy”, and all sorts of dedicated ARM server CPU designer startups.

It almost feels like these companies have forgotten that the real power of x86 isn’t in the clever CPU design, but in the huge volumes of x86 desktop PCs sold each day, driving down the costs for everyone. The only people going a different route that I can find are Raspberry Pi, building a $25 ARM device which runs Linux, but this is aimed at the educational market, not the server market, and has a lower specification CPU.

Am I wrong, does anyone know of a $100 ARM server you can buy today, equivalent to a smart phone in both CPU resources and power usage?

Update: A bit of poking around has found the BeagleBone, which is 90% of the way there, for a cost of well under <$100. All it really needs is something like a PXE boot system, and a decent case around it (or more likely, a case to hold 50 boards in one chassis), and you’d be off.