ARM servers had better just work if vendors want to sell very many

March 23, 2017

A few years ago I wrote about the cost challenge facing hypothetical future ARM servers here; to attract our interest, they'd have to be cheaper or better than x86 servers in some way that we cared about. At the time I made what turns out to be a big assumption: I assumed that ARM servers would be like x86 servers in that they would all just work with Linux. Courtesy of Pete Zaitcev's Standards for ARM computers and Linaro and the follow-on Standards for ARM computers in 2017, I've now learned that this was a pretty optimistic assumption. The state of play in 2017 is that LWN can write an article called Making distributions Just Work on ARM servers that describes not current reality but an aspirational future that may perhaps arrive some day.

Well, you know, no wonder no one is trying to actually sell real ARM servers. They're useless to a lot of people right now. Certainly they'd be useless to us, because we don't want to buy servers with a bespoke boatloader that probably only works with one specific Linux distribution (the one the vendor has qualified) and may not work in the future. A basic prerequisite for us being interested in ARM servers is that they be as useful for generic Linux as x86 servers are (modulo which distributions have ARM versions at all). If we have to buy one sort of servers to run Ubuntu but another sort to run CentOS, well, no. We'll buy x86 servers instead because they're generic and we can even run OpenBSD on them.

There are undoubtedly people who work at a scale with a server density where things like the power advantages of ARM might be attractive enough to overcome this. These people might even be willing to fund their own bootloader and distribution work. But I think that there are a lot of people who are in our situation; we wouldn't mind extra-cheap servers to run Linux, but we aren't all that interested in buying servers that might as well be emblazoned 'Ubuntu 16.04 only' or 'CentOS only' or the like.

I guess this means I can tune out all talk of ARM servers for Linux for the next few years. If the BIOS-level standards for ARM servers for Linux are only being created now, it'll be at least that long until there's real hardware implementing workable versions of them that isn't on the bleeding edge. I wouldn't be surprised if it takes half a decade before we get ARM servers that are basically plug and play with your choice of a variety of Linux distributions.

(I don't blame ARM or anyone for this situation, even though it sort of boggles me. Sure, it's not a great one, but the mere fact that it exists means that ARM vendors haven't particularly cared about the server market so far (and may still not). It's hard to blame people for not catering to a market that they don't care about, especially when we might not care about it either when the dust settles.)

Comments on this page:

By skeeto at 2017-11-13 14:09:47:

I thought of your article here after reading this article today: Red Hat introduces Arm server support for Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I'm curious what you'll make of this news.

By cks at 2017-11-13 16:06:35:

My early reaction is that I don't see any list of supported hardware in Red Hat's announcement (well, apart from what is probably an expensive and high-end server from HPE). However, Cloudflare's recent blog on ARM suggests that Qualcomm and Cavium will both be selling functional servers that run some Linux, so it's certainly possible that there's now a critical mass of server vendors behind a single bootloader standard that will be widely supported by multiple Linux distributions.

(Or, as so often has happened in Linux, it could be that Red Hat has one bootloader and Ubuntu has another and the two aren't going to be meeting any time soon, so ARM servers are still either RHEL/CentOS or Ubuntu but not both.)

Written on 23 March 2017.
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Last modified: Thu Mar 23 23:14:50 2017
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