Arm, Microsoft at pains to say this CPU arch can be trusted with real server work

It should just run like x86, pair basically stress


Arm is this week celebrating passing a few of its own self-set milestones in its long quest to compete against x86 stalwarts Intel and AMD in the server processor space.

One, we're told, is that Microsoft Ampere Altra-based Azure servers are now Arm SystemReady SR certified, "the first cloud solution provider (CSP) server to do so," said Arm Chief System Architect Andy Rose on Monday.

Another is that Azure VMs powered by Altra processors are the first of their kind to be certified as compliant with the SystemReady Virtual Environment standard. And the other breakthrough, according to Rose, is that there have been more than 50 certifications of SystemReady products since the launch of the program.

Introduced in late 2020 as part of Arm’s Project Cassini, SystemReady defines a set of firmware and hardware standards for things like servers and workstations, embedded electronics, and smartNICs, and is intended to ensure software runs without a hitch on compliant systems. If your application stack is designed for, say, the SystemReady SR set of requirements, you should be confident that it'll run on products that are certified as SystemReady SR compliant.

This kind of validation is important because Arm lacks the luxury of decades of server and workstation software support enjoyed by its x86 competitors, Daniel Newman, principal analyst and founder of Futurum, told The Register. “I think the idea of change is somewhat daunting for many organizations,” he added.

Growing by degrees

SystemReady essentially provides software developers, original equipment vendors, and chipmakers a baseline for system development. The SystemReady Base System Architecture, for example, provided a minimum set of hardware requirements to boot an operating system.

Arm initially offered four certification tiers. SystemReady LS targeted hyperscaler-like server hardware running Linux-based operating systems and hypervisors, while SR-certified workstations and servers can run Linux, VMware, BSD Unix, and Windows operating systems. The chip designer’s SystemReady IR and ES tiers, meanwhile, were tailored for embedded Arm systems along similar lines.

The chip designer has since expanded range to include certifications for virtual environments, and as mentioned now counts more than 50 certifications.

According to Newman, Arm SystemReady is a step in the right direction.

“Anything they can do to win the support of the hyperscalers and to simplify the refactoring and the process for new architectures in the datacenter is going to be significant in helping drive Arm adoption,” he said.

Arun Kishan, a corporate VP at Microsoft Azure, cited several benefits of the program for the cloud provider and its customers alike. Chief among them was consistent software support across multiple generations of Arm-based systems.

“At its core, the Arm SystemReady compliance certification program preserves the investments that we and customers make in our software stacks," said Kishan in a canned statement.

“For Microsoft Azure, the SystemReady platform certification means we can easily move from one generation to another. For customers, the SystemReady Virtual Environment (VE) certification means that their software investments are preserved across multiple VM generations as well. Arm’s SystemReady compliance program is an essential component of building an innovative and evolving server ecosystem.”

Redmond buys in

Microsoft waded deeper into the Arm datacenter waters last month with its VMs powered by Altra Arm processors from Ampere. The chip startup's Mt Jade platform is among the first SystemReady-certified SR systems.

"Building a comprehensive ecosystem from the CPU to the server platform to the software stack is critically important to Ampere's success," the biz's Chief Product Officer Jeff Wittich said in an email to The Register.

"A big part of that is ensuring that, when customers buy an Ampere-based server, everything across their software stack just works right out of the box."

To date, Ampere silicon powers 12 SystemReady-certified systems, with more on the away, according to Wittich.

Announced in 2020, Ampere’s Altra family uses Arm’s Neoverse N1 microarchitecture, and is available in SKUs of up to 80 cores per package clocked at up to 3.3 GHz. Ampere later boosted the core count to 128 with Altra Max in 2021.

Microsoft’s D- and E-series Azure VMs can be equipped with up to 64 Altra cores, 208 GB of RAM, 40 Gbit/sec networking, and high-speed SSD storage.

However, Microsoft is hardly the first to embrace Arm CPUs for the cloud. Amazon is now on its third-generation of Graviton CPUs, while Oracle last year announced a new line of low-cost, Arm-based instances also based on Ampere’s Altra processors.

Gaining support from Oracle, Azure, and AWS is a “significant validation” for Arm, and will “lead to greater confidence in enterprises and public cloud consumers,” Newman said.

While a step in the right direction, Newman notes Arm has a long way to go to compete against Intel and AMD, which dominate the datacenter server processor market.

"I don't think x86 is in great danger, but I do think that with more and more volume and more and more support from hyperscalers, we will certainly see Arm gain more market share," he opined. "The overall demand for computers is so exponential that I think there's plenty of marketing opportunities for everyone." ®


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