Editor's Note: This is the fourth article in a new series by SUSE community marketing manager Brian Proffitt for Linux.com called "Reality Check" that will take a look at Linux in the real world. For more in this series see OpenStack is Not the Next Linux, 5 Linux Features You Want in Your Company and Defining the True Success of Linux.
Intel x86 processors have long dominated the computing market, but a not-so-new competitor will soon be giving Intel a run for its money in server space: ARM processors.
"Traditional" computing devices like laptops, desktop computers, and servers have been powered by Intel or Intel-licensed processors for 30-odd years, and plenty of operating systems can run on machines with these chips, including Linux, Windows and Mac OS X.
ARM processors, on the other hand, are not made by just one company like Intel. Instead, ARM develops only the core architecture and licenses it to any hardware maker that wants to use the design to make its own processors. Because of the way it is designed, ARM processors use very little power, which makes them perfect for personal electronic devices where battery resources must be frugally maintained.
But all of these vendors licensing ARM and building their own version of the processor has led to a serious fragmentation problem. An ARM processor or system-on-a-chip (SoC), a piece of hardware that essentially miniaturizes all the components to make an SoC a stand-alone computing device, will carry the fingerprints and design used by each ARM vendor. That means software that runs on one ARM SoC may not run on another ARM SoC.
Last fall, this situation started to change, when the Linaro Enterprise Group banded together some big newer players in ARM space, including AMD, Facebook and HP, working together to try to unify the fragmented ARM processors enough to create a new class of made-for-server ARM chips.
The cloud is one of the big drivers for making ARM servers so attractive. One of the obvious (yet sometimes missed) points about the cloud is that you need a lot of hardware to make it go. In hardware that is Intel-powered, that means power and heat.
The average Intel server processor pulls in something like 80 watts of power just to run. But a multi-core ARM SoC draws only about 4 watts of power. That's a whole system on a chip, too, not just the processor. Less power means less resistance and less heat. Less heat means less money wasted on cooling and more capability to compress ARM-based systems together.
That's why ARM is getting a lot more attention from hardware vendors, software vendors and really big cloud computing users. And Linux distributions, too. If ARM architected hardware is going to be more prevalent in the cloud, then it makes sense that Linux should be able to run atop such machines.
openSUSE, for instance, has a dedicated ARM team, which releases an ARM version of openSUSE 12.2 last November, and is currently working on a 12.3 release.
openSUSE for ARM is almost there! We are currently getting ready for our 12.3 release which will work on the devices listed below. Almost all of the usual openSUSE distribution (>5000 packages) builds and runs on all the ARM hardware we have tested it on so far. The team can take advantage of the openSUSE Build Service to cross-compile almost all of openSUSE's 5000+ packages to run on either the armv7hl or armv5tel architectures.
Fedora is also working on their own ARM versions of their software, which Red hat has said are specifically aimed at the server space.
This is not an abandonment of Intel's business, not by any means—they've got their own low-powered chips and systems on a chip that can't be ignored. But ARM is going to be a presence in server land, and they can't be brushed aside, either.
The good news, especially for data center and cloud deployment teams, is that all of this competition for low-power server business will be bringing lower power bills and less cooling costs for facilities, and a whole lot of scalability.
Progress with Linux on ARM will make sure apps will run no matter what architecture you decide to use. To share your thoughts on Linux and ARM, check out the tagged section of SUSE Conversations.