Calxeda Takes Aim at Big Data HPC with ARM Server Chip

By Michael Feldman

May 31, 2012

With Dell’s news this week of its renewed plans to bring ARM-based servers to datacenters and Intel’s recent unveiling of new Xeon CPUs aimed at ultra-low-power servers, the “microserver” marketplace is being primed for some commercial offerings. Chip startup Calxeda has been working to bring its own ARM-based SoC technology into the datacenter and, with the help of its OEM partners, the company is positioning the technology for its commercial debut.

The microserver phenomenon is just emerging, but it has all the earmarks of a disruptive market shift. The concept was invented to more closely match hardware capabilities with evolving datacenter workloads and energy usage. A near insatiable demand for Web-based serving and content delivery and a plethora of big data applications, combined with the escalating costs of power and cooling, has forced CPU makers to rethink their priorities. Calxeda, Marvell, Intel, and others recognized these trends forming years ago and started designing ultra-low-power parts aimed at these high-growth application areas.

High performance computing is somewhat on the periphery of this phenomenon. The HPC user’s obsession with performance, especially floating point performance, is rather at odds with these FLOP-challenged chips. And for the initial crop of ARM-based servers, there is the additional limitation of 32-bit computing, which cuts across both HPC and enterprise computing.

Calxeda’s EnergyCore processor, for example, is a quad-core ARM chip of Cortex A9 vintage, the same 32-bit architecture that powers the latest dual-core iPad (sans the PowerVR GPU). And although the Calxeda chip is marginally faster than the iPad chip, its top speed is just 1.4 GHz. With less than half the clock frequency and half the number of cores of a midrange Xeon CPU, the EnergyCore has about 1/10 the overall performance of a Sandy Bridge E5-2600.

The upside, of course, is power usage. While that same 8-core Sandy Bridge part has a 100-watt TDP, the EnergyCore SoC maxes out at less than less than 4 watts. And that includes a high performance on-chip fabric switch, which eliminates the need for a lot of network cabling and energy-sucking switches. The chip also incorporates a management engine that does high-level functions like intelligent node routing and power optimization.

When you add in 4 GB of RAM, a complete Calxeda server is only 5 watts. A four-node, 16-core reference board designed by Calxeda consumes just 20 watts and is 10 inches long.

The catch is that the application has to parallelize rather well. According to the chipmaker, what would have taken 400 servers of a conventional x86 setup now requires 1,600 Calxeda-based servers, albeit with just 1/10 the power requirement, 1/20 the rack footprint, and less than half the up-front costs. That level of savings is attracting a lot of attention from users with cluster apps that can scale reasonably well but don’t require scads of single-threaded performance or raw FLOPS.

That represents a large number of Web and enterprise workloads, but there is also a rather nice subset of HPC applications that can take advantage of this platform. According to Calxeda vice president of marketing Karl Freund, a lot of data-heavy HPC applications are fair game for ARM clusters. Any MapReduce/Hadoop-type application or really any code that is I/O- or memory-bound, rather than compute-bound, is a “great fit” says Freund.

It includes a number of big data-ish apps like financial and risk modeling, seismic codes, and various type of signal processing workloads. Freund also thinks there’s a case to be made here for genomic analysis. In these applications, performance tends to be constrained by the bottleneck at external storage and/or main memory, so you don’t need a fast clock on the CPU; it’s going to be waiting for data regardless of its GHz rating.

In fact, for data-bound codes, the slower the chip the better the performance per watt. That’s the essential design point of these ARM server chips, since they are geared for throughput processing on embarrassingly parallel workloads. And in many cases, you don’t need that much floating point horsepower either.

Even for traditional HPC science simulations, where floating point performance is often critical, the Calxeda solution might be the way to go. Although Freund admits that their CPU is not designed for FP performance, the hardware does include an FPU with both single and double precision FP support, not to mention a NEON SIMD engine with even better single precision performance. But it is by no means a high-end floating point microprocessor in the fashion of a Xeon or an Opteron.

Even in HPC though, that’s not always necessary. In conversations with users at Sandia National Labs, Freund related that only about 5 percent of the aggregate cycles on the labs’ simulation codes were double precision floating point operations. That suggests the Calxeda offering might be able to effectively negotiate a simulation code, slowing down on the floating point curves and making up time on the integer straightaways.

Another consideration is the movement toward heterogenous computing in HPC, where GPUs and to a lesser extent, FPGAs, are being employed as computational accelerators. Where applications can take advantage of such acceleration, a low-power ARM, rather than a big Xeon or Opteron, may be all that’s necessary for a host-side CPU. Freund says at least one customer is toying with the idea of hooking a Calxeda-based server to an FPGA for just such an arrangement.

To date, the company has attracted five OEMs that have designed servers around the EnergyCore SoC. HP and Boston Limited have demonstrated their Calxeda gear in public. HP’s offering, the Redstone Development Platform (4U 288 nodes), is not a commercial product, per se. It’s being distributed to select customers for testing and evaluation only. The Boston Limited platform, known as Viridis (2U 48 nodes), is also in the pre-commercial stage and is likewise being distributed to “interested parties.” And although Dell’s “Copper” microserver is officially powered by Marvell’s ARM server chip, the server maker is also in cahoots with Calxeda on other designs.

The remaining two Calxeda OEMs will remain nameless for the time being. However, according to Freund, three of the five system vendors should begin shipping Calxeda-powered servers in volume by Q4 of this year.

In the meantime, Sandia and MIT have signed up as beta sites for running some HPC codes through Calxeda hardware. A set of HPC libraries and packages have already been ported to the platform, including various flavors of MPI, BLAS, ScaLAPACK, Ganglia (monitoring) and Condor (checkpointing). Language support, including C, Fortran, Perl, Python, and Ruby is there as well.

Let the benchmarking begin.

Subscribe to HPCwire's Weekly Update!

Be the most informed person in the room! Stay ahead of the tech trends with industy updates delivered to you every week!

IBM Begins Power9 Rollout with Backing from DOE, Google

December 6, 2017

After over a year of buildup, IBM is unveiling its first Power9 system based on the same architecture as the Department of Energy CORAL supercomputers, Summit and Sierra. The new AC922 server pairs two Power9 CPUs with f Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

PEZY President Arrested, Charged with Fraud

December 6, 2017

The head of Japanese supercomputing firm PEZY Computing was arrested Tuesday on suspicion of defrauding a government institution of 431 million yen (~$3.8 million). According to reports in the Japanese press, PEZY founde Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Azure Debuts AMD EPYC Instances for Storage Optimized Workloads

December 5, 2017

AMD’s return to the data center received a boost today when Microsoft Azure announced introduction of instances based on AMD’s EPYC microprocessors. The new instances – Lv2-Series of Virtual Machine – use the EPY Read more…

By John Russell

HPE Extreme Performance Solutions

Unleash the Next Generation of HPC with Memory-Driven Compute

Today’s enterprises are faced with an ever-growing volume of data that contains immense value and intelligence for those who can properly collect, process, and store it. Read more…

Bryant Departs Intel For Google Cloud

December 5, 2017

Google has upped its cloud game with its recruitment of Diane Bryant, the former Intel Corp.'s datacenter boss who becomes chief operating officer of Google Cloud. Bryant, an engineer who worked her way up through the Read more…

By George Leopold

IBM Begins Power9 Rollout with Backing from DOE, Google

December 6, 2017

After over a year of buildup, IBM is unveiling its first Power9 system based on the same architecture as the Department of Energy CORAL supercomputers, Summit a Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Microsoft Spins Cycle Computing into Core Azure Product

December 5, 2017

Last August, cloud giant Microsoft acquired HPC cloud orchestration pioneer Cycle Computing. Since then the focus has been on integrating Cycle’s organization Read more…

By John Russell

GlobalFoundries, Ayar Labs Team Up to Commercialize Optical I/O

December 4, 2017

GlobalFoundries (GF) and Ayar Labs, a startup focused on using light, instead of electricity, to transfer data between chips, today announced they've entered in Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPE In-Memory Platform Comes to COSMOS

November 30, 2017

Hewlett Packard Enterprise is on a mission to accelerate space research. In August, it sent the first commercial-off-the-shelf HPC system into space for testing Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

SC17 Cluster Competition: Who Won and Why? Results Analyzed and Over-Analyzed

November 28, 2017

Everyone by now knows that Nanyang Technological University of Singapore (NTU) took home the highest LINPACK Award and the Overall Championship from the recently concluded SC17 Student Cluster Competition. We also already know how the teams did in the Highest LINPACK and Highest HPCG competitions, with Nanyang grabbing bragging rights for both benchmarks. Read more…

By Dan Olds

Perspective: What Really Happened at SC17?

November 22, 2017

SC is over. Now comes the myriad of follow-ups. Inboxes are filled with templated emails from vendors and other exhibitors hoping to win a place in the post-SC thinking of booth visitors. Attendees of tutorials, workshops and other technical sessions will be inundated with requests for feedback. Read more…

By Andrew Jones

SC Bids Farewell to Denver, Heads to Dallas for 30th Anniversary

November 17, 2017

After a jam-packed four-day expo and intensive six-day technical program, SC17 has wrapped up another successful event that brought together nearly 13,000 visit Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

SC17 Keynote – HPC Powers SKA Efforts to Peer Deep into the Cosmos

November 17, 2017

This week’s SC17 keynote – Life, the Universe and Computing: The Story of the SKA Telescope – was a powerful pitch for the potential of Big Science projects that also showcased the foundational role of high performance computing in modern science. It was also visually stunning. Read more…

By John Russell

US Coalesces Plans for First Exascale Supercomputer: Aurora in 2021

September 27, 2017

At the Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee (ASCAC) meeting, in Arlington, Va., yesterday (Sept. 26), it was revealed that the "Aurora" supercompute Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

NERSC Scales Scientific Deep Learning to 15 Petaflops

August 28, 2017

A collaborative effort between Intel, NERSC and Stanford has delivered the first 15-petaflops deep learning software running on HPC platforms and is, according Read more…

By Rob Farber

Oracle Layoffs Reportedly Hit SPARC and Solaris Hard

September 7, 2017

Oracle’s latest layoffs have many wondering if this is the end of the line for the SPARC processor and Solaris OS development. As reported by multiple sources Read more…

By John Russell

AMD Showcases Growing Portfolio of EPYC and Radeon-based Systems at SC17

November 13, 2017

AMD’s charge back into HPC and the datacenter is on full display at SC17. Having launched the EPYC processor line in June along with its MI25 GPU the focus he Read more…

By John Russell

Nvidia Responds to Google TPU Benchmarking

April 10, 2017

Nvidia highlights strengths of its newest GPU silicon in response to Google's report on the performance and energy advantages of its custom tensor processor. Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Japan Unveils Quantum Neural Network

November 22, 2017

The U.S. and China are leading the race toward productive quantum computing, but it's early enough that ultimate leadership is still something of an open questi Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

GlobalFoundries Puts Wind in AMD’s Sails with 12nm FinFET

September 24, 2017

From its annual tech conference last week (Sept. 20), where GlobalFoundries welcomed more than 600 semiconductor professionals (reaching the Santa Clara venue Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Google Releases Deeplearn.js to Further Democratize Machine Learning

August 17, 2017

Spreading the use of machine learning tools is one of the goals of Google’s PAIR (People + AI Research) initiative, which was introduced in early July. Last w Read more…

By John Russell

Leading Solution Providers

SC17 Booth Video Tours Playlist

Amazon Debuts New AMD-based GPU Instances for Graphics Acceleration

September 12, 2017

Last week Amazon Web Services (AWS) streaming service, AppStream 2.0, introduced a new GPU instance called Graphics Design intended to accelerate graphics. The Read more…

By John Russell

Perspective: What Really Happened at SC17?

November 22, 2017

SC is over. Now comes the myriad of follow-ups. Inboxes are filled with templated emails from vendors and other exhibitors hoping to win a place in the post-SC thinking of booth visitors. Attendees of tutorials, workshops and other technical sessions will be inundated with requests for feedback. Read more…

By Andrew Jones

EU Funds 20 Million Euro ARM+FPGA Exascale Project

September 7, 2017

At the Barcelona Supercomputer Centre on Wednesday (Sept. 6), 16 partners gathered to launch the EuroEXA project, which invests €20 million over three-and-a-half years into exascale-focused research and development. Led by the Horizon 2020 program, EuroEXA picks up the banner of a triad of partner projects — ExaNeSt, EcoScale and ExaNoDe — building on their work... Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Delays, Smoke, Records & Markets – A Candid Conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro

October 5, 2017

Earlier this month, Tom Tabor, publisher of HPCwire and I had a very personal conversation with Cray CEO Peter Ungaro. Cray has been on something of a Cinderell Read more…

By Tiffany Trader & Tom Tabor

Tensors Come of Age: Why the AI Revolution Will Help HPC

November 13, 2017

Thirty years ago, parallel computing was coming of age. A bitter battle began between stalwart vector computing supporters and advocates of various approaches to parallel computing. IBM skeptic Alan Karp, reacting to announcements of nCUBE’s 1024-microprocessor system and Thinking Machines’ 65,536-element array, made a public $100 wager that no one could get a parallel speedup of over 200 on real HPC workloads. Read more…

By John Gustafson & Lenore Mullin

Flipping the Flops and Reading the Top500 Tea Leaves

November 13, 2017

The 50th edition of the Top500 list, the biannual publication of the world’s fastest supercomputers based on public Linpack benchmarking results, was released Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

Intel Launches Software Tools to Ease FPGA Programming

September 5, 2017

Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs) have a reputation for being difficult to program, requiring expertise in specialty languages, like Verilog or VHDL. Easin Read more…

By Tiffany Trader

HPC Chips – A Veritable Smorgasbord?

October 10, 2017

For the first time since AMD's ill-fated launch of Bulldozer the answer to the question, 'Which CPU will be in my next HPC system?' doesn't have to be 'Whichever variety of Intel Xeon E5 they are selling when we procure'. Read more…

By Dairsie Latimer

Share This