When we saw the very first silicon based on the ARMv8-A architecture appear from ARM partner Applied Micro last year, I said the server world would never be the same again!


And why did I say that? I said it because as a partnership, we’re disrupting the data center market which is now in a period of unprecedented innovation. It may not be obvious but the ARM partnership has been disrupting the data center for years, as the architecture at the heart of the majority of mobile devices and many smart connected devices we’ve been indirectly impacting how hyper scale data centers are architected to address these new classes of cloud and web based workloads.

 

When the data center is fundamental to operating your business, as opposed to just providing supporting functions, cost savings become extremely important as they directly impact your bottom line. That’s why companies such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, Amazon and many more are laser-focused on reducing their Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). However, early adoption of new innovation must be balanced with deployment and management costs since the ‘T’ in TCO represents ‘Total.’ Standards are fundamental to ensure ease of deployment and cross-platform portability in the data center, and that’s why we’re excited to announce a new foundational specification that we’ve been collaborating on for a while - the Server Base System Architecture (SBSA) specification.

 

For those of you wanting to jump right in and read the specification you can download it here.


Competition is good; Choice fosters competition

 

A few years ago several ARM partners set about revisiting server design to better meet these new classes of workloads in a way that would provide the next step function efficiency improvements and, ultimately, TCO. The ARM partnership showed the world what was possible when you challenge convention and empower engineers with innovative, enterprise-grade technology building blocks whose DNA is strongly rooted in the power-efficient mobile world. Collectively we’ve already changed the industry as incumbent players have taken note and adjusted their roadmaps in favor of system-on-chip (SoC) designs.

 

While we’ve seen initial server success with 32-bit ARMv7 architecture-based solutions from Marvell & Texas Instruments, the arrival of 64-bit ARMv8-A architecture-based solutions marks a significant increase in the number and diversity of solutions. In addition to Applied Micro, AMD, Broadcom and Cavium have all made 64-bit announcements. Choice gives data center operators the opportunity to select best-of-breed solutions that enable them to meet their TCO goals. As a result, there is clear and growing demand for more workload-optimized solutions by a server market that was largely devoid of choice for the past 20+ years. However, as mentioned earlier data center operators are responsible for managing complex environments, and they must balance new technology adoption with any potential complexities (that a heterogeneous environment may bring).


Standards accelerate time-to-market and ease deployment

 

Imagine for a moment that you have a data center with thousands of existing servers. You may have a single OS running throughout your data center or you may have multiple OS’s, but either way you will likely have a single variant of each OS that deploys across all servers in your data center. Having to adopt a new and unique OS in order to roll out new and innovative hardware is not acceptable. It would quickly become unwieldy to manage and cause significant maintenance overhead (especially managing updates and patch sets to fix major bugs or security issues).

 

With multiple ARMv8-A architecture-based server solutions coming to market this year, it’s important to ensure that OS, firmware and software developers can rapidly develop and deploy on ARM-based servers, especially since there will be more choice and a broader diversity of solutions. The ARM partnership worked together to help ensure this would be the case when ARMv8-A architecture-based servers became a reality, and this is why the release of the ARM Server Base System Architecture (SBSA) specification is such an important milestone. The SBSA specification has been in development for some time (as evidenced by compliant silicon already existing), and represents close collaboration across the ARM partnership from software companies, OEMs and silicon partners, including: AMD, Applied Micro, Broadcom, Canonical, Cavium, Citrix, Dell, HP, Linaro, Microsoft, Red Hat, SUSE and Texas Instruments.


 

SBSA collaboration partners shadow.png

 

A large part of the ARM value proposition stems from a licensing model that empowers partners with technology building blocks on which they can innovate and develop compelling solutions. This means standardization efforts must strike a balance to avoid diluting or eliminating innovation. As owners and stewards of the ARM architecture, we are pleased to collaborate with other industry leaders to drive standards that help strike that balance and enable OS, firmware and software developers to rapidly develop and deploy on ARM-based servers.

 

The SBSA is a foundational specification that will evolve over time; encompassing additional capabilities such as live migration of virtual machines between different ARMv8-A architecture-based systems. It is a hardware specification that firmware, OS and virtualization companies will use to target a logical progression of platforms to accelerate development and ensure cross-platform portability.

 

SBSA specification scope.png

 

SBSA standardizes low-level CPU and SoC attributes such as timers, interrupt controllers, watch dog timers, performance counters and also specifies minimum hardware requirements that firmware and OS vendors expect to be present. It stipulates adherence to industry standards for boot devices so that they can be managed in a consistent manner, and requires all hardware be describable or discoverable, to eliminate the need for explicit platform knowledge baked into the OS kernel. In order to provide a logical platform progression over time, the specification defines levels of standardization.  This provides a common language for the ecosystem to describe SoC and software capabilities, and ensure they intersect. In the example below, each level introduces additional requirements and is a superset of the previous level (unless explicitly documented). Silicon vendors are permitted to support capabilities beyond a given level as long as software created for that level is able to run unmodified. OS vendors are able to develop support for multiple levels in a single OS offering, thereby accelerating time-to-market and reducing maintenance by ensuring they can run across all ARMv8-A architecture-based server platforms:

 

SBSA levels example.png

 

The ARM partnership has consistently demonstrated its ability to collaborate and address common challenges that benefit the ecosystem at large. Linaro, a not-for-profit engineering organization founded 3.5 years ago, is another great example of this. More specifically, the Linaro Enterprise Group (LEG) is focused exclusively on the development, test and up streaming of server-specific open source software. Linaro, through close collaboration with the open source community, is helping to implement some of the key software components in support of the SBSA specification. Linaro is also identifying potential areas for additional standardization that will benefit the open source community and improve software development and long-term maintainability. It’s a symbiotic relationship that will help ensure good software support exists in the Linux upstream:

 

SBSA LEG relationship trans.png

 

ARM is excited to reach this important milestone, especially with the support of a vibrant and growing ecosystem, and we also realize there is still much work ahead to achieve the goals we’ve set for ourselves. This year represents an important inflection point for the ARM partnership as ARMv8-A architecture-based server solutions emerge and significantly extend our reach across a broader set of data center workloads representing a much broader market opportunity. The SBSA is the first of multiple specifications we expect to publicly release … so watch this space!

 

In the meantime, “you are now free to move around the ARM-based server ecosystem!”