ARM servers in need of a compiler tune-up

Rick Merritt

October 03, 2014

Rick MerrittOctober 03, 2014

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Users and vendors of ARM-based servers say their biggest need is better support from middleware such as compilers for scripting languages. The systems aim to use an emerging class of relatively power-efficient ARM-based SoCs to grab a slice of a server market currently dominated by Intel’s muscular x86 processors.

Multiple chip vendors showed ARM servers up and running a variety of Linux-based operating systems and applications at the annual ARM Tech Con here. One vendor showed its ARM SoCs beating Intel servers in a live test. However, users said code for ARM-based systems has plenty of room for optimizations that promise better performance.

“You can get stuff compiled and running, but what you can’t do is get awesome code out of compiler chain -- we have to work really hard on that,” said one researcher from Sandia National Labs testing Hewlett-Packard’s Proliant m400 system announced earlier this week that uses the 64-bit X-Gene 1 SoC from Applied Micro.

“Enterprise users will be surprised how much code they can get up and running,” said the researcher who preferred not to be named. “We can hand tune the code for tens of percent faster performance, so we know there’s much more head room,” he said.

Sandia also found the performance of the ARM systems scale better than x86 servers on their scientific applications (see below). They attributed the finding to the ARM SoCs being more balanced in memory bandwidth, I/O and processor performance. Intel’s chips typically have much greater processor performance than the ARM SoCs, but the lack of memory bandwidth and I/O means the maximum performance of the Intel chips cannot be achieved or sustained.

Sandia showed results of ARM servers showing better performance scaling than Intel servers on some of its scientific applications.
Sandia showed results of ARM servers showing better performance scaling than Intel servers on some of its scientific applications.

“It’s like having a ten-room house but you can only afford to heat and live in four or five of the rooms,” said another Sandia researcher referring to the Intel chips. With the ARM systems “you can use all ten rooms,” he said.

Sandia runs huge clusters of Intel-based servers today as part of its mission to support the government nuclear stockpile. It has been testing since March HP’s ARM-based system, and was the first to receive a production version of a chassis packing 48 X-Gene processors. Sandia routinely tests all new server architectures.

Sandia uses tens of thousands of x86 processors in its production systems, connected on high-end clustering interconnects such as Infiniband and MPI. Applied’s X-Gene SoC does not currently support Infiniband and only uses MPI over Ethernet, an interconnect Sandia does not use in its production systems because it lacks the high speed and low latency Sandia wants.

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