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back to article Gasp! Facebook's hardware king joins board of ARM server biz Calxeda

Facebook's head of hardware design and supply chain operations has joined the board of directors of Calxeda, a company that specializes in building servers out of ARM processors. The strategic appointment was announced on Thursday and will see the man in charge of one of the biggest buyers of modern chips, and leader of the " …

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Is ARM slower than x86?

While Intel leads in speed in the current crop of processors, there is nothing inherent in the architectures that implies that ARM processors must be slower than x86 processors. When ARM first came out, it was faster than the x86 processors of the time. In the 90s, Intel caught up and surpassed ARM, but that was mainly because the focus for ARM processors shifted from desktop to mobile systems, in particular phones and PDAs. In the last decade, Intel has had the advantage of a 64-bit architecture, but now ARM has one too, and one that is simple enough to be implemented for high speeds at modest cost.

Since anyone can buy an architecture license and implement their own ARM processors, it is entirely possible that a big server producer will do that to make fast servers.

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Re: Is ARM slower than x86?

As you say currently ARM is aimed at low power applications. This makes it a good choice for keeping infrequently used data online cheaply. The Intel and AMD PC and server chips are designed for high demand. I reckon servers based on low power chips will be popular in the home market too.

The thing about servers when compared to Windows PCs is they just have to follow some well known protocols so you can use Linux. This means you can use any chip you like if it runs Linux. The Windows PC has to be Intel architecture. This is the biggest market for powerful CPUs.

If Android based PCs take off then the ARM chip may well become the most powerful CPU.

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Power needs

"the social network needs chips with screaming fast CPUs to deliver dynamic web pages and perform similar tasks"

No, not really. What they need is lots and lots of CPU capacity - but not individual speed-at-all-costs cores.

On the desktop/workstation, you can really only use a few cores for most things, so you need those cores to be as fast as possible. Intel are very good at that: the i7 and latest Xeons are packed full of really clever tricks to shave every microsecond off the execution time of individual instruction streams so you can get the next frame of your FPS drawn in time, or get that complex protein molecule calculated and drawn that tiny bit faster. Having more cores doesn't give you much benefit if any, for all the effort put in lately trying to make tasks multithreaded wherever possible. To double the speed, you can be quadrupling the cost - and if you need the speed, that's where you go.

Facebook, on the other hand, have millions of requests coming in each second. More and cheaper cores are a big win for them: half the performance for a quarter of the price means they can get twice as much throughput for the same money.

Intel see this too, of course: it's why they've been adapting their Atom core for server use, as well as portable. It'll be a tough fight, though: their biggest asset, Windows compatibility through x86, just doesn't apply to these big Linux server farms: a LAMP stack should be just as happy on ARM as on x86.

I wonder if/when Intel might get a big Atom sale to the likes of AWS or Azure? Or, conversely, when Microsoft might get round to offering ARM builds of Windows Server...

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