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Twelve trends for '12: #7 x86 in handhelds + ARM in data centers = change everywhere.


With today’s Web 2.0 applications and databases now capable of scaling-out onto a large number of lower power CPUs (see my post about 1024 chickens), expect the unexpected from the x86 and ARM architectures as each moves into the traditional markets of the other. However, success and failures in this space will hinge on independent software vendor (ISV) support along with disciplined management of where and when alternatives to the incumbents are introduced.  


Moons.jpgIn particular I’m interested in implications of ARM’s entry into the enterprise applications and infrastructure space. Much has already been written about their stronghold in the smartphone/tablet segment but less about their move into the datacenter, specifically their (non-exclusive) role in HP’s own Project Moonshot.


Intel (and to a lesser extent, rival AMD) has already made huge strides into the datacenter over the last 15 years with its x86 and Itanium architectures against the higher cost, proprietary SPARC and Power alternatives. I’d argue that it’s now at the point where x86 is considered the de-facto when spec’ing out a new datacenter. 


Shortly after I published my original top 12 article, no lesser publication than The Economist ran a story on the Intel vs ARM battle and wisely counseled that IT leaders and technology firms alike look at more than just price performance as they chose the right mix for their needs. 


As far as “plumbing” is concerned, CPUs probably strike most of us as pretty mundane but CPU a successful CPU architecture requires a vast and stable ecosystem to be commercially viable including long term ISV support, a process for maintaining multiple (potentially subtly incompatible) versions of operating system and applications as well as simply being able to find and train staff capable of supporting the explosion in heterogeneity.


When it comes to ARM in the datacenter in particular, I would recommend you start talking to your ISV now about your and their plans to support the environment and simultaneously looking to open-source technology on the assumption that you may need to recompile your own software stack onto the target environment as an interim measure.


However, importantly Intel shows no sign of ceding the tablet and smartphone market any time soon, which of course creates a different tension as IT pros contend with managing different apps across an increasing array of apps and OSes. 


Bottom line – the coming raft of CPUs promise energy and price/performance efficiencies, especially in the datacenter. These potential gains need to be balanced against the long term costs of managing an increasingly heterogeneous environment. Either way, I believe IT leaders should be cultivating the tools and processes required to develop and support low-power ARM and Intel based architectures in preparation for a broader role in the coming years.


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Paul Muller has a wealth of experience working with CIOs and VPs of IT improve IT performance and business alignment.
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Paul Muller leads the global IT management evangelist team within the Software business at HP. In this role, Muller heads the team responsible for fostering HP’s participation in the IT management community, contributing to and communicating best-practice in helping IT perform better.

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