Ubuntu eyes ARM servers

It goes without saying that technology is largely driven by the race to push out better-performing systems. Consumers generally spend money on computers and servers that are faster, more powerful and more capable than their previous ones, not on systems that are slower. It’s the overriding characteristic of IT development over the past decades.

Now there is a new factor being introduced into the mix: lower power consumption.

In part this new element exists because of a growing awareness of the need to reduce power consumption for the benefit of the environment. It is also just as much about the need to reduce power costs for businesses. As more and more businesses ramp up their systems and rely on server systems, the corresponding power costs escalate rapidly.

Clearly, producing less capable systems is not an option, so the power savings need to be found elsewhere.

ARM clusters

One of the possible solutions is to build data centre clusters out of low power-consumption processors such as those used in smartphones and tablet PCs. It’s an area that Canonical is now moving into with the news that from its next major release, Ubuntu 11.10 in October, Ubuntu Server will include support for ARM-based server clusters.

Processors such as the ARM ones, used to date primarily in the cellphone market, use significantly less power than most other traditional processors. They may not yet compete with x86 processors on the raw power front but companies such as Canonical are envisioning an environment that uses hundreds or even thousands of these processors to power large data centres.

In a recent video interview (below) Chris Kenyon, vice president for OEM at Canonical, said that one of the major challenges for data centre operators now was to build ever more powerful services within given “power envelopes”. On the one hand, data centre operators need electricity to power their server environment. On the other, they need power to cool the installation down. Microservers built out of ARM or similar low-power processors have many advantages, said Kenyon. For one they require less power while also generating less heat and reducing the power overhead.

Kenyon said that there are also opportunities to experiment with putting thousands of processors into server racks and being able to shut down “nodes” when they were not needed. Doing this would radically drop the power consumption of devices that are in an idle mode.

According to Kenyon the initial focus for Canonical will be to optimise Ubuntu for ARM systems to perform tasks such as distributed data processing in which hundreds or even thousands of systems are put to work simultaneously.

The first beta release of Ubuntu 11.10 is scheduled for September 1. The final release is scheduled for October 13.

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Ubuntu eyes ARM servers