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Powered by ARM chip, Calxeda server sips 5 watts

HP commits to using energy-efficient server design from Calxeda, which is built around the ARM chip normally used for cell phones.

Open Compute/Facebook

Start-up Calxeda is making an end run around the limitations of power in data centers by using chips normally used for mobile phones.

The company today is launching its EnergyCore "server on a chip" around the ARM processor, which yields a four-core server that runs at 5 watts and less than half a watt when idle. Hewlett-Packard plans to build a line of energy-efficient servers around EnergyCore.

The EnergyCore processing unit is well suited for "big data" applications that crunch large amounts of data in parallel, such as analytics, media streaming, or in-memory databases, according to the company. Since it's a 32-bit processor, it's still not suited for complex, high-performance computing tasks better served with 64-bit processors.

Three-year-old Calxeda, which was founded by former Intel and Marvell engineer Barry Evans, set out to redefine the server by starting from scratch, company executives told the Austin Statesman. The company has raised $48 million from venture capital companies and ARM Holdings, which licenses ARM to other companies.

"We believe a new era of energy-efficient servers is now dawning for scale-out workloads, and today we are introducing the foundational architecture that will enable this breakthrough," Evans said in a statement.

To save energy, EnergyCore runs at a lower speed than typical processors at just more than one gigahertz. Its processor includes a separate communications switch and power management functions. The on-board management system will turn off the server processing cores when idle which makes a significant impact for data centers running thousands of servers all day long, said John Mao, Calxeda's director of product marketing.

"The magic is that they really understand the data center side and not just the low-power side (of the processor design). It is the right blend of what you need, and that is impressive," Gartner analyst Carl Claunch told the Statesman.

Calxeda's not the only company using processors optimized for low power in servers. SeaMicro, for example, last year launched a server built around 8 Intel Atom low-power processors and Marvell has a server processor on the ARM chip. Over time, Calxeda will take advantage of advances to the ARM architecture, such as moving to 64 bits, Mao said.

By bundling together low-power processors and optimizing the system for efficiency, Calxeda expects it can sign on server companies and data center operators to try their design.

"ARM does for the processor world what Linux did for the operating system world," Karl Freund, vice president of marketing at Calxeda told The Register. "It opens up the chip market to a whole lot of innovation."

Updated at 3:25 p.m. PT with updates and clarification on power consumption. Updated on November 2 with correction to SeaMicro's product description.