Canonical/Ubuntu and ARM towards Energy Efficiency

Technical guys are hard to understand unless you are one of them. They tend to be happier if technologies are difficult to understand and only they can understand them. I used to belong to that group and was very proud of it. Most technical details are complex and hard to understand, but that was a challenge for me to overcome. I wanted to master Unix in the 1980s, and it was my goal to be an expert in it. I wanted to know so much about Unix but could not touch the source code. So I purchased Minix copies, consisting of a number of floppy disks with source code. I could not think of any other OS better than Unix then. In the mid-1990s, I became a manager and switched to Windows. And I was so surprised that it was easy to use. With that experience, I think I know firsthand why desktop Unix did not win the market until now. While I was using Windows for my work, I still kept a Unix equivalent on a desktop by running a copy of Red Hat Linux, which was pretty cheap. At some point, I no longer had time to work with Linux and abandoned it altogether.

One day several years ago I had the urge to go back to Unix/Linux. By then, Red Hat no longer had a cheap solution. I had lost expertise in Linux and confidence in my systems administration skill. I needed an easy Linux solution, which I knew was an oxymoron. I researched a lot about Linux, and tried a few of the many versions of it, and found that confusing. On the basis of reputation, testimonials from others, and my trials, I picked Ubuntu. Hard-to-understand and difficult-to-deal-with were important when I was a techie. But spending several years as a manager changed my attitude towards computing a lot. Computing should support me, but I should not support it. I selected Ubuntu, and my current version is 12.04 LTS (long-term support) version.

When I signed up as press for the recent ARM TechCon, I got a lot of emails from PR people of various companies for interview opportunities. When you have limited time, you review each company’s news closely and decide which companies to talk to. It is hard to choose whom to interview with the sketchy information given. Sometimes the selection is easy, when you see a major company wants to talk to you.Among several offers, there was one from Canonical, which is the firm supporting the Ubuntu operating system for desktop, server, and commercial uses. I took the opportunity without hesitation.

At ARM TechCon, Canonical issued a press release, Canonical joins Linaro Enterprise Group (LEG) and commits Ubuntu Hyperscale Availability for ARM V8 in 2013. I sat down with Michael Kress, VP of Sales at Canonical, and talked with him about it.

Michael Kress

Michael flew in the night before, after waiting at Logan airport for four hours. He was flying from Boston, which was impacted by our friend Sandy the superstorm. He has been with Canonical for close to five years and has worked in several areas, including the ecosystem of ARM for Canonical. I did not know much about Linaro. According to Michael, Linaro was started about two years ago with four to five companies. I was led to believe that Linaro is for embedded Linux, but Michael corrected me. The embedded Linux world is quite different from that of non-embedded one, and it is not easy to enter it without the right background.

Linaro‘s activity is summarized from their website:

Linaro is the place where engineers from the world’s leading technology companies define the future of Linux on ARM. The companyis a not-for-profit engineering organization with over 120 engineers working on consolidating and optimizing open source software for the ARM architecture, including the GCC toolchain, the Linux kernel, ARM power management, graphics and multimedia interfaces.

To ensure commercial quality software, Linaro’s work includes comprehensive test and validation on member hardware platforms. The full scope of Linaro’s engineering work is open to all online. Open engineering has been practiced from the start at Linaro with plans, specifications and progress available for inspection on the developer Wiki. Linaro is distribution neutral: it wants to provide the best software foundations to everyone, and to reduce non-differentiating and costly low level fragmentation.

Linaro Enterprise Group (LEG) is a new working group at Linaro that includes companies like AMD, AppliedMicro, Calxeda, Canonical, Cavium, Facebook, HP, Marvell, and Red Hat, in additon to the original Linaro members, like ARM, HiSilicon, Samsung, and ST-Ericsson. Linaro released information here about it.

Canonical/Ubuntu is embracing ARM. Because my areas of coverage have grown so wide, I was blind-sided about Ubuntu’s new territory. But when you see the growing market into SNS, it is no wonder that Ubuntu is entering the ARM world. In the SNS world, what is required is scale-out but not scale-up. Computing tends to be distributed, and not every task requires heavy computing. For that, a server based on ARM is a good fit. Canonical/Ubuntu was hinting at this in one of the blogs by Victor Palau back in August. In the blog, there was a link to his presentation to summarize why. I thought it very useful. In the presentation, Victor showed some interesting numbers, such as:

  • 98% of 1 billion mobile phones sold each year use at least one ARM processor.
  • A rack designed for 40 traditional servers could house 3,000 ARM servers.
  • HP estimates ARM servers will require 94% less space.

There was more stuff in the presentation, but let me defer it to a future blog.

Canonical started with ARM in 2008. In the actual working with Linaro, Canonical assigned a few engineers dedicated to Linaro to work with other engineers from other companies to solve tough engineering problems, such as the interoperability of various technologies and boot-process differences among system-on-a-chip (SOC) vendors. There are several packages of Ubuntu tailored to each platform, and each version is natively compiled. For an outsider like me, it would be very interesting to compare benchmarks between their X86 version and the ARM version, but for an obvious reason they keep such benchmarks internal. The next question is whether an ARM-based server is ready for prime time. Michael thinks the 32-bit ARM solution is ready for specific application areas like Web and Big Data, which require scale-out features. Canonical can expand into many areas, such as cloud computing, but it does not work in the embedded market. In the embedded market, an OS is sometimes not a visible component.

From the green IT perspective, this is interesting. It is welcome news to know that both Ubuntu and Red Hat are embracing low-power servers based on ARM chips. If a low-power server running ARM replaces one with X86, power consumption goes down tremendously. But if you pack more servers into the same or less space, what happens to power consumption and heat emission? Take a rack of servers. With ARM servers, the density would be 75 times (according to Victor above) greater than the traditional way. Compacting the servers would minimize space, and that would reduce energy consumption for sure. That is welcome news. On the other hand, if you increase density and pack more into a given space, power consumption and heat emission may increase. For that, alternative cooling technologies and operational methods may be required. I have not seen any research on the tradeoffs anywhere yet. At this time, examples of ARM servers in many data centers are hard to find, and I defer my comment on this to a later time.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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