Calxeda's ARM server chip has four Cortex-A9s, fabric switch -- and support from HP

Calxeda announced an ARM-based "server-on-a-chip" with up to four ARM Cortex-A9 cores, a fifth "management controller" core, a fabric switch, and multiple controllers for peripherals such as SATA drives, PCI Express, Ethernet, and SD cards. HP says it will build these ECX-1000 processors into "Redstone" servers -- initially Unbuntu Linux-based -- later versions of which may alternatively employ Intel Atom CPUs.

Back in March, Calxeda said its ARM-based server chips, based on a quad-core ARM Cortex-A9 design, would be reaching OEMs later this year. The company added at the time that its SoCs would enable vendors to create servers that will offer 120 quad-core ARM nodes, with an average power consumption of about five Watts apiece, in a single rack.

On Oct. 26, both Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal added that HP would become the first major OEM to adopt Calxeda processors for some of its servers. And on Nov. 1, it all came to pass, with launch events at Calxeda and HP headquaters in Austin, Texas, and Palo Alto, Calif., respectively.

Calxeda's server chip -- known as the ECX-1000 -- includes two or four ARM Cortex-A9 cores, which can be clocked at speeds from 1.1 to 1.4GHz. The SoC (system on chip) also has a fifth processor dedicated to power and systems management, according to the company, and consumes a maximum of 5 Watts in its four-core 1.4GHz version.

A block diagram of Calxeda's ECX-1000
Calxeda says the so-called Energy Core Management Engine can "perform real-time power optimizations by individually tuning 14 different power domains within the node, idling or turning off entire subsystems when possible, yet instantly resuming operation within a matter of clock cycles." Supporting IPMI 2.0 and DCMI management protocols, the management processor further provides a dedicated Ethernet MAC and Serial-over-LAN support, for out-of-band systems management, the company adds.

The ECX-1000, reportedly fabricated using a 40nm processor by TSMC (Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp.), has much more etched onto it. Notably, there's an 8x8 fabric switch, designed not only to link the chips to an outside network, but also to link multiple ECX-1000s to one another in a cluster.

More details of Calxeda's ECX-1000
According to Calxeda, the switch offers 80Gb/sec. of bandwidth. Supporting gigabit and 10Gb Ethernet, it can link as many as five XAUI 10Gb ports, six 1Gb SGMII ports (multiplexed w/XAUI ports), and three 10Gb Ethernet MACs (supporting IEEE 802.1Q VLANs, IPv4/6 checksum processing, and TCP/UDP/ICMP checksum offload), the company adds.

Given that the ARM Cortex-A9 cores are 32-bit (unlike ARM's upcoming 64-bit ARMv8), the ECX-1000 is not being aimed at mainstream applications nor at supercompting. Rather, it's "ideal for workloads such as web serving, 'Big Data' applications, scalable analytics such as Apache Hadoop, media streaming, and mid-tier infrastructure such as caching and in-memory scalable databases," Calxeda claims.
Additiuonal features cited by Calxeda for the ECX-1000 include:

  • 32 KB L1 instruction cache per core
  • 32 KB L1 data cache per core
  • 4 MB shared L2 cache with ECC
Integrated memory controller:
  • 72-bit DDR controller with ECC support
  • 32-bit physical memory addressing
  • supports DDR3 (1.5V) and DDR3L (1.35V) at 800/1066/1333 MT/s
  • single and dual rank support with mirroring
PCI Express:
  • 4 integrated Gen2 PCIe controllers
  • 1 integrated Gen1 PCIe controller
  • up to 2 PCIe x8 lanes
  • up to 4 PCIe x1, x2, or x4 lanes
  • SATA controllers
  • Support for up to 5 SATA disks
  • Compliant with SATA 2.0, AHCI Revision 1.3, and eSATA specifications
  • SATA 1.5Gb/s and 3.0Gb/s speeds supported
SD/eMMC controller:
  • compliant with SD 3.0 host and MMC 4.4 (eMMC) specifications
  • supports 1- and 4-bit SD modes and 1/4/8-bit MMC modes
  • read/write rates up to 832 Mbps for MMC and up to 416 Mbps for SD
System integration features:
  • 3 I2C interfaces
  • 2 SPI (master) interfaces
  • 2 high-speed UART interfaces
  • 64 GPIO/interrupt pins
  • JTAG debug port
Calxeda's EnergyCard

Calxeda also announced a reference product for server manufacturers that incorporates four ECX-1000 chips. Known as the EnergyCard, it's a 10 x 2.7-inch card that includes two PCI Express-style connectors, four mini-DIMM sockets accepting up to 1GB apiece, and a multitude of SATA ports.

Calxeda's EnergyCard
As pictured above, there are four SATA 2.0 ports dedicated to each SoC, for a total of 16. Calxeda adds that four SATA channels are also available via the edge connectors, as are eight 10Gb Ethernet channels, a high-speed UART interface, two GPIOs, an I2C interface, and a JTAG debug port.

According to Calxeda, the EnergyCard uses 12V power, dissipates 25 Watts overall, and may be cooled passively via a heatsink. Operating range is from 32 to 140 deg. F, the company adds.

Manufacturers or system integrators can plug multiple EnergyCards into a passive system board for "near limitless" expansion, Calxeda says. According to Karl Freund, the company's vice president of marketing, customers could fit 18 to 240 ECX-1000 chips into a single 2U box, and up to 3000 of the devices in a full rack.
Citing an HP design (see below), Calxeda CEO and co-founder Barry Evans said, "A single rack of HP's Calxeda servers delivers the throughput of some 700 traditional servers and dramatically simplifies the infrastructure needed to hook them all together and manage the cluster."

Given that Microsoft has not even announced plans to create a server version of its ARM-powered Windows 8 operating system, ECX-1000 servers will run Linux. Canonical's Ubuntu is specifically mentioned by Calxeda, but the devices will also run Red Hat's Fedora, or so a Nov. 1 article in The Register claims.
Canonical's Mark Shuttleworth stated, "The fundamental constraint in the world of massively parallel approaches to data management and analytics is power. Today marks the beginning of a new way of thinking about what is possible in data and analytics. What is happening here at Calxeda and HP is the beginning of that revolution in the data center."

HP's Redstone servers

HP announced it will use Calxeda ECX-1000 processors in its first "Redstone Server Development Platform" products, to be released during the first half of 2012. Future Redstone versions "will include Intel Atom-based chips as well as others," the company added.

HP's Redstone
One image released by HP shows a tray (above) that appears to contain 18 of Calxeda's Energy Cards, while another image (below) shows a unit that will hold four of these trays. Dimensions weren't cited, but HP said Redstone can incorporate "more than 2,800 servers in a single rack, reducing cabling, switching and the need for peripheral devices, and delivering a 97 percent reduction in complexity."
A rack for four Redstone trays
As part of a multiyear, multi-phased program dubbed Project Moonshot, HP said, it will open a "Discovery Lab" in Houston, Texas in Jan. 2012, with other sites planned for Europe and Asia. Clients will be able to use remote or onsite access to test and benchark applications on the Redstone platform "and other extreme low-energy platforms," the comapny added.

Further information

More information on Calxeda's ECX-1000 can be found on the ECX-1000 product page. More information on the company's quad-note EnergyCard may be found on the EnergyCard product page.


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