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Google, Oracle’s Ampere VMs get Arm’s SystemReady seal of approval

So that means everything just works now, right?

Arm has added two cloud instances from Google and Oracle Cloud, both powered by Ampere’s Altra datacenter processors, into its SystemReady certification program.

This means Google’s Tau T2A and Oracle’s Ampere A1 systems, or virtual environments rather, have been vetted against a slew of popular operating systems and software. We'll have to see how it works in practice.

Launched in 2020 under Arm’s Project Cassini, SystemReady aimed to assuage compatibility concerns for users looking to migrate from x86 or between systems running Arm chips. The certifications provided a set of firmware and hardware standards for servers, workstations, and embedded electronics to ensure that software works as expected.

With Arm-based systems — particularly Ampere’s Altra CPUs — becoming increasingly popular in the cloud, Arm extended the certification to include virtual environments back in May, with SystemReady.

While it’s taken for granted that software written for an x86 chip from Intel will run without issue on AMD kit, the same level of full compatibility isn’t guaranteed for Arm processors. This is the problem Arm’s SystemReady program is designed to address.

For Arm to thrive in the datacenter market, “the industry needs to tackle issues around fragmentation, finding the right balance between standardization where it makes sense, and differentiation where it matters,” Andrew Rose, chief system architect and Arm fellow, wrote in a recent blog post.

Google’s Tau T2A and Oracle’s A1 instances are only the latest to receive a SystemReady VE certification, following the inclusion of Microsoft Azure’s Arm-based instances in May.

One thing linking all of these instances is Ampere Computing’s Altra and Altra Max processors. First launched in 2020, Altra is based on Arm’s Neoverse N1 microarchitectures and are available in SKUs with up to 80 cores per package clocked at 3.3 GHz.

The company brought a more powerful 128-core version to market last year dubbed the Altra Max, and the chip's successor, which adds support for DDR5 and PCIe 5.0, is expected to start sampling later this year.

Arm wrestles its way into the cloud

Support for Arm in the datacenter and cloud arena has grown steadily over the past few years.

Amazon Web Services’ (AWS) Graviton3-based instances entered general availability in May, four years after announcing its first Arm CPU. The 64-core CPU is based on a chiplet architecture and uses Arm’s Neoverse V1 core architecture. Curiously, despite using Arm’s instruction set and core designs, Amazon isn’t listed on Arm’s site as a SystemReady supporter or partner.

Oracle was among the first to throw its weight behind Ampere’s Altra processors in 2020, while Redmond dabbled with Marvell’s — formerly Caviums — ThunderX2 processors as far back as 2019. The company has since deployed Ampere’s Altra CPUs across its cloud infrastructure and is rumored to be working on an in-house datacenter CPU to compete with Amazon.

Google has built a tensor processing unit (TPU) for AI workloads in the cloud, and has developed custom Arm chips for its Pixel smartphone line. However, in the cloud, the company has been slower to embrace RISC.

One of the biggest hangups for the ad giant appears to have been software compatibility. When Google unveiled its value-focused Tau instances in 2021, it opted for AMD’s Epyc 3 CPUs, arguing that by sticking with x86, customers could avoid wasting “precious technical resources and time redesigning applications.”

A little over a year later and Google’s tone had changed. In July, Google caved, officially adopting Ampere’s Arm cores for its Tau T2A instances.

Meanwhile, Arm continues to push the envelope of its datacenter core designs, announcing its Neoverse V2 cores, which will power Nvidia’s upcoming Grace CPU, in September. However, Arm could face headwinds from chipmakers over potential changes to its licensing model, as alleged by Qualcomm, which is being sued by the British chip designer over its use of technologies acquired from Nuvia. ®

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